Exhibitions of progressive new Iranian art have flourished over the last several years, in commercial galleries in the Middle East and in diasporic centers like New York and London. The most recent major contribution to this ongoing introduction is Iranian Arts Now at Cité International des Arts in Paris until July 24. Though the emergent profile of contemporary Iranian art has been supported by dealers like Leila Heller in New York and the Silk Road Gallery in Tehran, broader public exposure is being facilitated by museum exhibitions, and notable ones include Iran Inside Out at the Chelsea Art Museum in 2009 and a current exhibition, Contemporary Iranian Art from the Permanent Collection, at the Metropolitan Art Museum.
When walking into Paris’s first retrospective exhibition of the photographs of Eva Besnyö at the Jeu de Paume, I was met with three mysterious images, visually linked by their askew perspectives. One is a self-portrait of Besnyö, who was born in Budapest in 1910 and broke free of Hungary’s provincial constraints to become a Berlin-based photographer at the young age of 20. The image of the woman in the portrait looks, in a word, contemporary. Unconventionally beautiful, Besnyö looks intensely into her medium format camera, hair tousled as her neck cranes above the view finder to which she is acutely focused, projecting an image of herself as an intense, slightly bohemian artist at work. Besnyö orchestrated this image of 1931 so that the viewer looks up to her from down below, and thus elevated before us is a powerful figure who directs our gaze and controls her own image long before similar strategies were conceived by feminist artists of the 1960s. It is from this point that the viewer commences into an exhibition of 120 prints by a photographer who has been given too little attention.
The exhibition of Joel-Peter Witkin at the Bibliothéque Nationale is not a retrospective, but an arresting exploration of the photographer’s work over three decades. In collaboration with Witkin, the curators of Enfer ou Ciel (Heaven or Hell), on view until July 1, compare many of his most fascinating and well-known images to the library’s exquisite and significant collection of prints. Placed in an art historical context of similar imagery found in the prints of such artists as Albrecht Durer, José de Ribera, Rembrandt, Francesco de Goya, and Pablo Picasso, Witkin’s work is thus tangibly embedded within a tradition of symbolism and mythology, and the pondering of the human condition and its spiritual dimensions by great masters of Western art.
Although Photo Month in Paris is November, exhibitions of emerging and renowned photographers seem to take place regularly throughout the city. If you are traveling to Paris, here are a few that will take you off the hard worn museum path and are worth the exploration.
Perhaps the premier outlet for photography in Paris, and an important venue for experimentation in the medium throughout Europe, is the Maison Européenne de la Photographie. Situated conveniently between the Pont-Marie and the St. Paul metro stops, it is just a block’s walk north from the Seine. Through mid-June, there are a variety of solo photo exhibitions on each of the gallery’s floors.
Each year, there is a cultural event in Europe, La Nuit des Musées, when for one Saturday night in mid-May participating museums throughout Europe are open free and late.
If you are in Europe in May it is an event definitely worth investigating, if not for the opportunity to enter museums free of charge then for the sheer experience of some of the world’s most famous museums after hours, surrounded by more locals than tourists. Another plus is that as part of the event, many of the museums have special events, such as concerts and guided tours. Attending, however, requires special planning. Paris, the city where I was located during their La Nuit des Musées, had 45 participating venues with 179 events. I utilized roughly the entire time span of the event, 6pm – 1am, and managed four venues.