Joan Mitchell x Claude Monet at Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris, February 2023
It feels somewhat like a pilgrimage as we head across Paris for the Fondation Louis Vuitton. Sirens wail and the streets are dug up, crossings severed and misplaced. We navigate across the Périphérique and scale a wall to access the Bois de Boulogne. Crisscrossed paths traverse through the trees, the leaping red squirrels making more confident progress than we do.
Finally, we approach the scribbled sketched idea of Frank Gehry, made real in steel and glass. It is strangely sympathetic to the surroundings with its organic curves, and arcs echoing the squirrel’s leap. The un-hidden girders are majestic; an abstraction in architecture with no requirement for a horizontal or vertical line. This building finds no reason to colour inside the lines.
So we join the lines. Anticipation builds. The barriers pulled back to submit a few at a time. Security, tighter than the border. No liquids allowed, but my mini sketching water container is given artistic allowances.
Finally inside and down to the Joan Mitchell Retrospective. Entering the expansive white space and ‘Minnesota’ embraces you. A flowing rhythm of brush marks in rich purple and egg yolk yellow cascade across four vertical canvas panels, spanning over 6 metres. The colours bleach out to a pale acid yellow and glowing lilac. Light pulses through the surrounding darks and sucks you in. It’s powerful and impossible to ignore.
The rooms lead you through Mitchell’s timeline and her inquiring explorations towards something authentic and honest. You can feel the frenetic struggle in early paintings, the influence of Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning, sometimes dipping a toe in the waters of cubism. Sketchbooks and photos follow her journey with video interviews of Joan, always direct, unapologetic and never without a cigarette.
It is overwhelming to be surrounded by her monumental works. Having skipped breakfast in the adventure to get here I feel pretty emotional and light-headed. So much colour, the unrelenting force of these giants. Dancing brush marks, squiggles, crosses and dabbed lines sprawl across acres of canvas. The white paint or bare spaces make as much a statement as the defiant colour choices. I sit and stare, much as I did when I first discovered Joan Mitchell’s ‘Salut Tom’ painting in London’s Royal Academy Abstract Expressionist show back in 2016. I was entranced and searched for more, discovering the struggles and talent of more female artists in Mary Gabriel’s weighty tome ‘Ninth Street Women’.
Joan’s work continues to hold its own and this exhibition is a magnificent vindication of her talent as an artist. I enter the final room and I am encircled by a mass of quite obnoxious greens and pinks. The colours are outrageous but she makes them sing. It’s like being lost in the forest.
Onwards to the Monet x Mitchell rooms. There is such a direct synergy between these two pioneers and the exhibition has been curated and hung with great delicacy and precision.
Viewing these later more gestural works of Monet, removed from their usual extravagant gilt frames allows them to be imagined outside of their time. Claude Monet’s ‘Water Lilies (Agapanthus)’ are intensively softly rendered but with bold daubs of vibrant gestured strokes that draw the eye. They are transcendent and it seems that Mitchell could not have happened without Monet breaking ground first.
The vigour and pure abstraction of Mitchell’s abstracts bring new understanding to Monet’s layered marks and knowledgable placement of colour as he unlocks the majesty of Giverny. Mitchell matches his stride and extends it further.
Before leaving, elated and exhausted, we discover a film installation by Lydia Ourahmane. We lie on the floor cushioned in the darkness watching images projected overhead. It feels as if we are walking amongst the cave paintings in the desert. It feels like meditation: the ancient cave walls, a palimpsest of marks, stories and emotions leaping across the surface. The painter paints and finds a way to communicate, passing on their truths, and leaving something for the next generation to explore.
The Monet x Mitchell exhibition is on until 27th February 2023 at Louis Vuitton Fondation, 8, Avenue du Mahatma Gandhi Bois de Boulogne, 75116 Paris
There's a walk through YouTube video here if you can't visit!
If you want to discover more about the female Abstract Expressionist artists I recommend you read Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel it's a great book. Buy here. (This isn't paid promotion I'm just enthusiastic!)
Photos taken either by me or from Joan Mitchell Foundation: Photo of Joan Mitchell in her Vétheuil studio in 1983 © Robert Freson. Joan Mitchell, La Grande Vallée XIV (For a Little While), 1983. Oil on canvas, 110 1/4 x 236 1/4 inches (280.035 x 600.075 cm). © Estate of Joan Mitchell.
Video installation by Lydia Ourahmane (1992, Algeria) presents Tassili (2022), a film shot in Tassili n’Ajjer. Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this exceptional mountainous region of the central Sahara Desert extends across 72,000 km²/ 27,799 mi² and is filled with thousands of rock engravings and cave paintings that bear witness to humans, animals, and vegetation that thrived, evolved, and disappeared in the area before climate change transformed it into a desert.