Discuss the use of ‘play’ as restored behaviour in Tino Seghal’s This Success/This Failure (ICA, Jan-March 2007).

‘Such consciousness of what we do and feel each day, its relation to others’ experience and to nature around us, becomes in a real way the performance of living. And the very process of paying attention to this continuum is poised on the threshold of art performance.’ (Allan Kaprow, 1979)

Berlin-based Tino Seghal’s exhibition This Success/This Failure, previously exhibited at the Kunsthaus Bregenz in Austria, and more recently at the ICA (29th Jan - 11 March 2007) was the final part of a trilogy of shows at the London venue. This Success /This Failure was a performance where children from local schools were exhibits, participants, facilitators and audience. The school children, aged between 7 and 10 years old, were based in the lower gallery of the ICA throughout the day. The students were from at least two different schools during each day except Sundays when the participants were from a variety of backgrounds. The reason being that the children were more likely to reinvent themselves (and the space) in a more outgoing, creative manner than if they were participating within preconditioned peer groups. Workshops were held in the morning to contextualise the event for those involved (children, teachers, educators, family members). The educational experience for the children was intended, as Seghal stated in his talk at the Goethe Institute with Dr Carey Jewitt, to be a “twisted trip to the museum” .

The instruction given to the participants was that they should “create their own means of play” , the request excluded the use of toys, phones, footballs, drawing/writing materials etc. As the ‘content’ of the exhibition, the young people were asked to use their imagination and creativity whilst interacting with the visitors and each other so that they could, according to the press release, “create a living art piece, over which they have ultimate control” . A living art piece certainly, but it would be questionable as to how much ‘control’ the children had within the institution, considering they were given instructions to adhere to, and were not allowed to leave the space. The ‘control’ the children experienced was in their negotiation of play and the, at times, humorous manipulation of the visitors. The responsibility (and a certain freedom) that the children experienced within the constructs of the art piece, somehow highlights the lack of freedom and control of all participants involved, yet Seghal states that the children “are empowered because they are taken seriously ”, they know that the artwork and the visitors are dependant on them.

Throughout each session, the children would interact with the visitors, playing more traditional games of Stuck in the Mud, Chinese Whispers and Wink Murder to showing magic tricks and coercing visitors into performing for them. As one young boy noted, “The best thing was trying to scare the adults.” At the end of each 45 minute interaction, the children were instructed to approach the visitor(s) and state the following: “My name is…., and I have decided that this piece of work is a success (or a failure).” The assumption that in this technological age children no longer play games without toys seems slightly na├»ve, as most of us who work with or have children in our families know. As Baudelaire noted, “Children bear witness through their games to their great faculty of abstraction and their high imaginative power. They play without playthings. ”

Seghal’s intention is to explore and antagonise common notions of political economy, relational engagement, consumerism, technology and communication. In a culture where material objects are so esteemed, he attempts to construct an economic system which mirrors that of the museum. Critiquing the desire for the production of ‘things’, Seghal transforms the material object into a temporal relationality materialised in the body. He refuses to document his work through film or photography and attempts to keep all paper work to a minimum, reducing the production of ‘objects’ that could be seen as art commodities. The ‘matter’ produced is comprised of language, human interaction, movement and engagement. His position echoes that of Peggy Phelan when she states that “performance’s only life is in the present ”, and that the recording, documentation or reproduction changes the event into “something other .” Although he insists his work be labelled as ‘installation’ rather than ‘performance’, Seghal maintains that viewers must directly interact, through dialogue and movement, rather than relying on documentation to experience the work. The materials used (human beings), the structure (pre-chosen conditions and instructions) and the product (relational situations) are essential elements of performance.

This Success/This Failure critiques many aspects of live art experience and audience expectations of the gallery space. The work is rich in references to performance and Situationist artists of the 60’s and 70’s. Allan Kaprow explored how life experience could be the medium of his art practice by creating situations, interventions and structures drawing on the banality of everyday events and actions. Kaprow wrote in his 1983 essay The Real Experiment that, “Lifelike art did not merely label life as art. It was continuous with that life, inflecting, probing, testing, and even suffering it, but always attentively. ” It is this experimental, playful approach to the everyday which Seghal harnesses and manipulates in This Success/This Failure to create a dynamic space open to dialogue, change and disruption.

He uses ‘play’ as a mode of transformative effect within the gallery and (by employing similar strategies as used by Kaprow), he marks out a structure of interaction through the use of previously written instructions given to participants. Instructions (or rules) are essential components of most kinds of ‘play’ or ‘games’ that we see and experience as everyday occurrences, whether in the playground, park, street or home. In his classic study Man, Play and Games, Roger Caillois defines the four main designations of play into “competition, chance, simulation…vertigo. ” He attempts to define these and to pose which is more dominant. It is worth noting that This Success/This Failure contained all four aspects of play, and that the children (and visitors) drew upon a common experience of games to collaborate with each other. That Seghal chose the activity of ‘play’ to explore relational behaviour and interaction seems an obvious and simple choice, the disturbance to our perception is the location - the gallery– a space where noise, laughter, children and movement are by and large absent. The gallery space has, as Brian O’Doherty writes in his seminal text Inside the White Cube, “a presence possessed by other spaces where conventions are preserved through the repetition of a closed system of values. Some of the sanctity of the church, the formality of the courtroom, the mystique of the experimental laboratory (….) ” The reverence of the ritualistic space is interrupted, a rift occurs, when children are running about screaming and laughing. Visitors were placed in a position which, for some, was extremely enjoyable (perhaps educational), yet for others, was extremely uncomfortable. Being forced to play with the children caused a range of emotions from a touch of embarrassment to utter awkwardness, and through the disruption of normal expectations of art (a passive, ocular experience), the visitor is made to reflect on their own behaviour, and to challenge personal boundaries.

In 1938, cultural historian Johan Huizinga explored the role of play within society in his book Homo Ludens. His observations could well be used as an exhibition press release for not only This Success/This Failure, but for much of Seghal’s art practise.

“A free activity standing quite consciously outside “ordinary” life as being “not serious”, but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings that tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise of other means.”

That play is removed from the production of object or profit, is fundamental to Seghal’s conception of relational artwork and his negation of material production. Roger Caillois also points to a characteristic of play being the fact that it “creates no wealth or goods. ” The rules of play are formulated outside of the everyday, ordinary routines and activities of productive work. What then, does play produce? Play, for both humans and animals, explores and develops social relations. In its multiple variations, from competitive games to character improvisation, play is performed in a space outside ‘normal’ life activities such as working, sleeping and eating, yet it draws upon the actions of the everyday and recombines them to create an exploratory event. American Anthropologist, Gregory Bateson commented upon the behaviour of two young monkeys playing together at San Francisco Zoo, noting that they were “engaged in an interactive sequence of which the unit actions or signals were similar to but not the same as combat.” The monkeys practised skills needed for survival within the group by using pre-known actions. It could be said that they rehearsed these skills, just as children rehearse the observed behaviours of others in their family and community.

Role-play, mimickery and make believe games are the primary means by which a child will imitate adults, and through the exploration of actions and reactions, learn appropriate, socialised behaviours. We can look at the case of Traian Caldarer the 7 year old Romanian boy who, in 2002, was found after living in the wild for 3 years in the forests of Transylvania. Having been looked after by wild dogs, he lost the ability to speak and displayed behaviours common to the pack, such as growling and chasing cats. The behaviours observed by this child, would then have been appropriated and normalised so that he could function as part of his new community. No doubt Traian Caldarer would have experienced imitative play as a kind of socio-symbolic tool which, through repetition, conditioned his behaviours; his actions and reactions. Kaprow observes that, “Human beings participate in these scenarios (participation performance), spontaneously or after elaborate preparations, like actors without stage or audience, watching and cuing one another…” There is an obvious similarity in the approach both humans and animals adopt towards participation in play, and how, by observing those around us, we learn skills for physical and emotional survival.

The repetition of everyday actions and behaviours outside the ‘frame’ of normal cultural interaction can be seen in play, ritual and performance, and it is within the blurred overlapping of these categories that artists such as Seghal and Kaprow position their work. Allan Kaprow in his aptly titled book, The Blurring of Art and Life, highlights the transformative effect of choosing a particular behaviour or action and ‘performing’ it within a different context. He noted that, ”…everyday routines conceived as ready-made performances change because of their double use as art/non art…” It is the double use of play in This Success/This Failure which creates tension and questions the assumed, or ‘normal’ behaviours of the visitors. Derrida emphasises that forms of communication need to be “repeatable – iterable” if they are to be affective. Repetition of a common behaviour, as a physical language shared within social groups, can be used as a powerful form of gestural communication.

Notions of repetition are embedded within Schechner’s explanation of ‘twice-behaved’ or ‘restored’ behaviour. Schechner points out that our daily life is filled with “routines, habits and rituals” which are, equally, a fusion of pre-behaved behaviours. We ‘perform’ these behaviours repeatedly, usually unaware of the causes of these actions. Those routines and habits that we repeat are hugely varied and can range from the rituals at a wedding or religious ceremony to the way we offer a cup of tea to a visitor. These behaviours do not ‘belong’ to any one of us, but are a combination of previously experienced behaviours. Schechner explains that:

“Restored behaviour is living behaviour treated as a film director treats a strip of film. These strips of behaviour can be rearranged or reconstructed; they are independent of the causal systems (personal, social, political, technological, etc.) that brought them into existence. They have a life of their own. The original ‘truth’ or ‘source’ of the behaviour may not be known, or may be lost, ignored, or contradicted – even while that truth or source is being honoured (…) Restored behaviour is the key process of every kind of performing, in everyday life, in healing, in ritual, in play, and in the arts.”

The magnitude of Schechner’s theory of restored behaviour is such that every kind of behaviour can be said to fall within it – every behaviour is constructed from previously behaved actions. We have already mentioned the blurring between life and art in the work of various art practitioners, and Schechner notes this within his definition of restored behaviour. Restored behaviour is integral to performance - just as each behaviour is restored, so each performance consists of restored behaviour. Schechner’s doubling – the ‘restored restored behaviour’ exists within performance, where the performer draws upon their knowledge of previous behaviours from life experience to re-enact them consciously within the context of an event and where particular behaviours are indicated as different. “Because it is marked, framed and separate, restored behaviour can be worked on, stored and recalled, played with, made into something else, transmitted, and transformed.” Schechner also points out that the doubling of restored behaviour within performance has been blurred not only in theatrical events, but also within everyday life. He wrote that opinion regarding the nature of the theatrical had changed so that…

“…the political action, conflictual or aharmonic behaviour on both the personal and the “social drama” levels, role playing in everyday life, emotional training using acting exercises to help professionals (police, airline personnel, etc.) to deal with a crisis … are all evidence to the increasingly complicated interactions between, and continuing convergence of, theatre and ritual.”

During such training events, participants draw upon their own knowledge of social behaviours to gain experience of learning how to react to challenging situations. When adults play at being themselves, a doubling of the restorative behaviour occurs once again. If, as Schechner states, restored behaviour is the “key process” of every kind of performance, then it deserves further analysis, and we can look to play as a model for this. Play can be defined as performance (role-play, make believe), as ritual (Halloween dressing-up), as healing (play therapy), as art (making, painting, building) and as part of everyday life; the interchange of these words and their meanings reflects the relationship between performance and life. Play can fit into each of Schechner’s 3 categories of performance (ritual, aesthetic and social), yet it is in the form of social drama that we commonly experience it. In “social drama all present are participants, though some are more decisively involved than others. ” (Seghal’s work is hinged on this very notion of participation – each individual is implicated in the action).

When playing, children explore and imagine their own social dramas.
They draw upon observed behaviours and transform them (through the restoration of behaviour) to fulfil their own needs. The child in the sandpit creates a diorama and arranges characters within a miniature world to re-enact the intricacies of relations between fictional creatures. The animation of toys through fantasy make-believe exists in parallel to reality. Huizinga wrote that the space of play is ‘outside’ everyday life, and the existence of a parallel fantasy world, gives the child a ‘safe’ place to explore relations. Fantasy can be empowering for the young child who has very little control over social situations, enabling them bring into being an interior world, creating symbolic systems of communication and meaning.

If play as restored behaviour exists ‘outside’ of everyday life, and denotes a type of freedom, an exploratory release, what then changes when the play is situated within the context of the gallery? The context of the space becomes as much the content of the work as the action happening within it. When questioned as to why Seghal situated his work in an ‘art space’ rather than a ‘non-art space’, he replied that if it was to be located within a school, it would be a ‘workshop’. “It wouldn’t be a work of art because a work of art needs a reception. ” For Seghal to generalise en masse that art does not exist outside of an art location or at least not without an art audience as ‘receptors’ (or perhaps he meant that art in schools/community settings does not count as proper art), is questionable, if not slightly arrogant. Admittedly, we would need to know more of his definition of art, but his stance seemingly detracts from his relational aspirations of community and dialogue, bringing into question the relationship between the artist and his participant/performers, as producer and produced. Seghal’s work is so intimately entwined with the economies of the gallery space and the art world, that it would be interesting to decontextualise it in this sense, and relocate it to a public space – Gillian Wearing’s Dancing in Peckham, 1994 comes to mind.

If we return to the restored behaviour of both the children playing at playing and the adults playing at playing, what happens to both within this participational performance? Schechner writes that the rituals and games that are part of everyday life are created collectively, and through the repetition and re-editing of these behaviours, we perform our lives, and we perform ourselves. The awareness of, and way in which, we perform ourselves is the basis of every kind of performance – in everyday life and in the theatrical. Schechner puts it in “…personal terms restored behaviour is “me behaving as if I were someone else,” or “as I am told to do,” or “as I have learned.”” He explains the ‘multiple me’; that through modest observation, one can analyse actions and reasons for behaviours and realise their repetitive quality which stem from learnt, or socialised behaviours and rituals. Kaprow discusses this awareness of self-performing in Erving Goffman’s work. He notes that,

“…routines of domesticity, work, education and management of daily affairs, which because of their very ordinariness and lack of conscious expressive purpose do not seem to be art forms, nevertheless posses a distinctly performancelike character. Only the performers are not usually aware of it.”

It is precisely this awareness of the self performing self that Seghal employs - the construction of an art work which presents a challenging mode of engagement and content (play, human beings as art objects rather than inanimate objects or images). The viewer has little choice but to be made aware – to be self-conscious – of personal boundaries and behaviours. Within the context of the gallery space, visitors had to readdress their own expectations of ‘proper’ art, behaviour and meaning - a process that the children also underwent, with the added support of the workshops, feedback sessions and discussions with educators. The alteration from pre-conceived social norms towards an openness to engage with the situation presented is transformational. Kaprow stated that “self-knowledge is where you start on the way to becoming “the whole”, whether this process takes the form of social action or personal transformation.” Seghal’s practise challenges personal behaviour; the awkwardness (the self awareness) that are created on the one hand and enjoyment and sense of fun on the other, are produced by the unwrapping of restored behaviours through play and relational engagement.

The problematics of This Success/This Failure, as a relational artwork, are perhaps to do with a lack of acknowledgement of the existence of ‘relational’ experiences in daily life. Whether the children gained as much from the supposedly ‘transformational’ experience as the artist did in terms of his own production of self-promotion remains to be seen. The awkwardness that the viewer experiences may not simply be due to the awareness of a restored and socialised behaviour, but may also be in part due to the performance of the children – they, not dissimilarly to zoo animals, do not have control, and are under the instructions of another. Seghal’s assurance of an educational benefit seems slightly more to do with enabling the performers to ‘perform’ their roles, rather than as an agency within itself. As one educator wrote:

“Although the concept of no objects and human interaction within the gallery space was effective with some groups it also proved unsuccessful and unpleasant with other groups. With no objects to engage them and no imposed authority from official teachers there were children who ended up being aggressive, badly misbehaved, discourteous and at times verging on violence with each other. I do not think this was entirely the fault of the children but perhaps proves an anthropological discovery that this environment can both be detrimental to some children’s behaviour whilst positively nurturing personal attributes in others.”

That challenging behaviour (to use this term within an educational context) arose throughout the exhibition perhaps only reaffirms the fact that human beings explore relations through play to test the boundaries and expectations of social groups. The exhibition promoted confidence for some of the children involved and would certainly have been a place for them to reflect on their own notions of art within the gallery context. To conclude, I feel it is only appropriate to record some of the thoughts of the young people who participated so wholeheartedly in the project.

“God, some of these adults' are really hard work.”

“I got everyone to be a ballerina ‘cos I wanted to make that man do it.”

‘‘I learnt that art can be about communication and doesn’t have to be a painting”

“For the imagination is the biggest, best, millionest object that we have and it’s usually entrapped within and by objects” (from a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome)

Allan Kaprow, Performing Life (1979) in The Blurring of Art and Life, University of California Press: Berkeley and LA, 1993, p196
Tino Sehgal in conversation with Dr Carey Jewitt, Goethe Institute, London, 29th January 2007
ICA Press release, Jan 2007
Tino Sehgal in conversation with Dr Carey Jewitt, Goethe Institute, London, 29th January 2007
No. 22, Selection of children’s statements from Observations of the Project, ICA, March 2007
Charles Baudelaire, Morale du joujou in Baudelaire: Oeuvres Completes, ed. Marcel A. Ruff, Editions du Seuil:Paris, 1968, p358
Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, Routledge: London, 1993, p146
Allan Kaprow, The Real Experiment (1983) in The Blurring of Art and Life, University of California Press: Berkeley and LA, 1993, p206
Roger Caillois, Man, Play and Games, The Free Press: New York, 1961, p12
Brian O’Doherty Inside the White Cube, 1976 (Expanded edition) University of California Press: London, 1999, pg14
Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens, Beacons Press: New York, 1955, p13
Roger Caillois, Man, Play and Games, The Free Press: New York, 1961, p21
Gregory Bateson, A Theory of Play and Fantasy, (1954) in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Paladin Books, 1973, p152
Allan Kaprow, Participation Performance (1977) in The Blurring of Art and Life, University of California Press: Berkeley and LA, 1993, p 187
Allan Kaprow, Participation Performance (1977) in The Blurring of Art and Life, University of California Press: Berkeley and LA, 1993, p 190
Jacques Derrida, Signature Event Context in Margins of Philosophy, Chicago:Chicago University Press,1982, pg315
Richard Schechner, What is Performance? In Performance Studies, Routledge: London, New York, 2002 p28
Ibid p14
Ibid p28
Richard Schechner, From Ritual to Theater and Back in Performance Theory, Routledge: London, New York, 1988, p122
Richard Schechner, Toward a Poetics of Performance in Performance Theory, Routledge: London, New York, 1988, p171
Tino Sehgal in conversation with Dr Carey Jewitt, Goethe Institute, London, 29th January 2007
Richard Schechner, What is Performance? In Performance Studies, Routledge: London, New York, 2002 p28
Allan Kaprow, Participation Performance (1977) in The Blurring of Art and Life, University of California Press: Berkeley and LA, 1993, pg186
Allan Kaprow, The Real Experiment (1983) in The Blurring of Art and Life, University of California Press: Berkeley and LA, 1993, p217
Educator 7, General observations collected from educators from Observations of the Project, ICA, March 2007
No. 4, Selection of children’s statements from Observations of the Project, ICA, March 2007
No. 13, Selection of children’s statements from Observations of the Project, ICA, March 2007
No. 19, Selection of children’s statements from Observations of the Project, ICA, March 2007
No. 23, Selection of children’s statements from Observations of the Project, ICA, March 2007

Bateson, G. (1973) Steps into an Ecology of Mind (Paladin Books)
Baudelaire, C. (1968) Baudelaire: Oeuvres Completes, (Paris: Edictions du Seuil)
Bishop, C. (2005) Installation Art: A Critical History, (London: Tate)
Bourriaud, N. (2002) Relational Aesthetics, (Dijon: Les presses du reel)
Burns, T. (1992) Erving Goffman, (London: Routledge)
Caillois, R. (1961) Man, Play and Games, (New York: The Free Press)
Derrida, J. (1982) Margins of Philosophy, (Chicago: Chicago UP)
Goffman, E. (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, (London: Penguin)
Huizinga, J. (1955) Homo Ludens, (New York: Beacons Press)
Kaprow, A. (1993) The Blurring of Art and Life, (Berkely and LA: University of California Press)
O’Doherty, B. (1999) Inside the White Cube, (London: University of California Press)
Phelan, P. (1993) Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, (London: Routledge)
Schechner, R. (2002) Performance Studies, (London: Routledge)
Schechner, R. (1988) Performance Theory, (London: Routledge)

Research notes - Wilhmena Barnes-Graham

Wilhemina Barns-Graham
Movement and Light: Imag[in]ing Time
Tate St Ives
Essay by Mel Gooding

“I am interested in using abstract forms mainly insofar as they are derived directly from natural sources by means of simplification within the movement of the picture itself: painting is pattern…’ WBG in 1949

“What B-G sought to do was to quicken our apprehension and sharpen our perception of the visible world.” – this is what I want to do also is it not? Don’t all painters?

later work says MG sees the development of more formally abstract works with less derivation from natural forms and more direct use of the “resources of painting itself: texture, stroke, colour, and the relations, internal to the canvas rectangle, of purely painted lines, blocks, patches, quasi geometric forms. The contrast that had always been at the heart of her thematic matter, of solid form to atmospheric insubstantiality, of the static architectonic of rock, hill and building to the flux of wind, water and weather, were now expressed in terms of those formal elements. “

“both paintings derive their visual impact not from any subliminal memory of natural forms but from the disturbance created in the spectator by the play across the front picture plane of free floating, off-vertical black diagonals. The sensations – rather than impressions – of scatter, pitch and fall are induced by these foreground elements; behind them the eye finds no place of rest”…. He goes on... Both paintings are brilliant demonstrations of affective and suggestive colour, the one hot, nocturnal, interior, the other cold, winter daytime, out of doors.” P27

‘Colour is for Barns-Graham, like the drawn line, a means to seeing and discovering reality. The formal aspects of her later painting [-] are no longer abstract transcriptions of what is perceived, and her colours have no naturalistic descriptive function. They are, rather, purely pictorial elements whose dynamic relations to each other are analogies for those of the real elements in the phenomenal world.

Time is registered in changes of light and colour, in the speed of stroke and line, in the insubstantial transience of clouds and shadows.

B-G’s non-figuration is never of the formalist kind that claims autonomy from nature. It is essentially an objective art that seeks to reveal, by vivid resemblances, both the chaos and the pattern of nature: its endless movement in time, its degree of darkness, its variegations of light.

[her work] pictures a moment abstracted from the flux of time in its elemental essence.

JMW Turner Research notes

Notes on Turner in Venice

Turner and Venice, 2003, Ian Warrel

“the vaporous masterpieces he produced then have been said to represent the sawn of Impressionism. For me they suggest Debussy in paint, and it is Debussy’s languorous, limpid cadences that come into my head still when I remember my own original stay in Venice”

I love this reference as music is a part of the way I consider my own works. A comment made to me about my work relating to Eric Satie has stayed with me for years and is one of the best and most interesting compliments I think I’ve ever received.

Ian Warrel asserts that although Turner only spent a total of 4 weeks in 20 years in Venice, his venetian paintings account for a large amount of his work. The Venice paintings are often talked about in relation to their focus on the sea and the effects of light on water – however these are also present in many of his works painted in Britain. It was water and the sea in general rather than Venice that was his main focus/love.

“Venice is a city suspended in time” – this notion it is suggested comes from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1818). It’s an interesting one this… does that quality come through in the work? I took some video footage in Venice with sound – must get it onto computer and use for a work… bells in the morning, not sure how I will use it, but perhaps the music element can be brought in somehow.

Turner often painted couplings – morning and evening of the same view, or two cities, hot and cold colourings… often series focusing on these opposites. Would it be useful for me to make a series like this? I do in many ways in the studio already, work in colour complemetaries…

P 25 “sense of a dematerialised reality, combined with a physical sense of the air between objects that is probably the most radical quality of the watercolours, though this too is common to much of his late work”

“this depicts Turner’s fundamental engagement with colour rather than form”

turner is said to have remarked to Ruskin “atmosphere is my style”

p 28 “ though movement is so often the ostensible subject of these pictures… there is surprisingly little evidence of discernable motion” it is suggested that this is due to the sense of Venice being suspended in time..

p66 In the late work the connections between the colour beginnings and the finished canvases is narrowed – works are layers of colour glaze and have little form

Monet Research from L'Orangerie

CLAUDE MONET at the Marmottan and Orangerie museums in Paris

Personal notes from my viewing experience at these museums on a research trip toParis and Giverny


It’s interesting to note how much the paintings change over time – was it Monet’s eyesight? Natural development of the work? Boredom, experimentation…? All of the above?!

The later works have a completely different colour key, they are much darker and have a lot of maroon and yellow ochre, green and orange. They have a lot of more onvious brushwork too. Some still have the vivid violet colouring, like the colour of things at night/twilight., I prefer these ones I must admit (perhaps just conditioning or expectation of Monet?)

Many of these works here in the Marmottan feel like studies (yet are hung as finished works). There’s a sense of a rush about them, I guess a sense of hurriedness which is an interesting element of time to have in a picture. They move too, the weeping willow leaves flutter and wriggle more than anything else on the canvas. A couple of work seem more abstract (for lack of a better word). One called Glycines, a long horizontal piece that looks like wistaria, but has this crazy light violet colour that is taking over the canvas like some of the earlier works actually – like Gare St Lazare where the patches of steam from the trains is the same colour as the sky and looks like it is eating away patches of the picture.
I love the early works actually, snow landscape, train in snow, London in fog…they all reference nature/landscape/weather.

There is a lot of movement in the later works, but the colour seems really off, they don’t ‘sing’ they’ve become muddied to the point of losing something, some have an ‘ugliness’ that works, in others I think they’ve gone too far. People lap them up though seemingly without much thought. It’s a funny thing the tourist art circuit.

The movement comes partly from directional brushwork, but mostly I think it is from the very closely judged relationship between colour and tone that makes the works so interesting. It’s the ones closest in tonality that work for me – it’s colour then primarily that he’s so good at.

L’Orangerie, Nympheas series

And tourism killed the paintings…

It’s so hard to see these works amidst the crowds taking their photos and listening to their audio guides. There is a continual stream of people asking the guides “which is No 1?” like it’s a tour they have to do from start to finish. No one seems to actually look at the paintings. No one stops. I guess when you succeed with something at the level that Monet has – you fail in the end to do what you set out to. People don’t actually see these paintings, they visit them like a site and pose in front of them.

The works are like clouds of violet smoke which slowly reveal little bits of a picture, a perspective, a bunch of waterlilies. The lighter areas – reflected clouds on the water? – eat into the surface eroding the illusion of depth that comes and goes across the picture plane. This aspect of the works reminds me of the earlier little train steam work ‘Gare St Lazare’ that does the same thing.

They’re peaceful works for the most part, quiet and restful. There is not a lot of movement, although it’s very hard to get a real sense of them, they underwhelm at first viewing this time. The colour is mesmerising in moments, but the draftsmanship seems clumsy, annoyingly so, is this deliberate?

Initially I didn’t like the works in the first room, but after a while in the second space which is dominated by mauve and so restful, so similar, so pretty – the return into the first room with its stronger and slightly jarring colours is surprisingly refreshing. Even the autumnal work I first thought was muddy, actually I really like. Why? Because it has guts. It has ugliness which it needs. It has autumn – decay, sticks and stalks where flowers bloomed. It has a lot of movement, flickering loose brushwork.

It irritates me slightly though that the paintings and made up of panels and the joins are really visible. They are obviously painted separately and some joins don’t meet up. I guess that must be deliberate?

For my own work I’d like to make them seamless. They need to be all in one piece. I will put works together to make a large environment, but each needs to stand alone as a painting.