The Villa Paloma in Monte Carlo in the little principality of Monaco sits perched on a steep hillside overlooking the sparkling harbour. The recently renovated Belle Époque building sits just below the aromatic Jardin Exotique, but is surrounded (or trapped even) by an ugly aggregation of beige and grey tower blocks that have blighted the town over recent decades. It was, however, the perfect contradictory setting for Thomas Demand’s intelligently curated group exhibition La Carte D’Apres Nature – the inaugural exhibition at the villa – and the second exhibition space of the Nouveau Musée Nationale de Monaco (NMNM) under the control of its dynamic director Marie-Claude Beaud.
It is an appropriate place for this exhibition, not withstanding its image of bejewelled casino players, for at the heart of it is Demand’s exploration of the uneasy relationship between nature and artificiality, the organic and the manmade. This focus on domesticated nature is of course an important part of Demand’s own work – in which he creates pictorial environments of natural things, (here we have Demand’s work ‘Clearing’ – a detail of a forest glade) and photographs them to look like the real thing. The title is taken from René Magritte’s short lived magazine, and Demand pays respectful homage to Magritte by including several of his works that are placed throughout the three storey building, including L’ile au tresor 1945, Jeune fille mangeant un oiseau 1927, La Malediction 1931 and L’Universe Demasque 1932.
In each case, Demand decided to amplify the artificiality of Magritte’s surreal paintings by hanging them on walls that were covered in wallpaper with the image of a red curtain. A painting within a painting. A representation of representation. It is a looped conversation that intensifies rather than cancels itself out.
The effect is that Magritte’s paintings hover over the exhibition like a benign yet nicely inconclusive force, but it is the photographs of the Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri (1943–1992) that underpin the whole. His small, delicate and subtle photographs are also hung throughout the building and feel like the psychological backbone of the exhibition. His subjects mix up the natural and manmade, often in a way that it is hard to know which is which. An advertising billboard selling fizzy drinks that features an image of grass sits in front of a tree canopy. They almost fuse into one. In another, a path with long grass leads to what looks like a skyline but is in fact a painted wall; in the image of a mountaintop could be of the real thing or its cardboard counterpart. It is hard to tell with Ghirri. Some of his photos look a bit boring at first glance – inconsequential even. But there is such an intensity behind these faded photographs that makes you keep looking. Ghirri had an extraordinary ability to make the natural look artificial (as opposed to the other way round). Or as Demand succinctly puts it, ‘the superimposition of several layers of representation in his pictures often produces a kind of riddle in which the eye first has to find its way around.’ His photographs mix the romantic with the everyday, the nostalgic with a simple surrealism. What is it about them that are so compelling? And why is he not better known?
The other artists in this exhibition accompany Ghirri and Magritte to elaborate on the theme. And the eclecticism of Demand’s choices and the historical timeframe that this encompasses makes for interesting links and crossovers, that, as Demand says, ‘look beyond historical categorizations’.
The earliest pieces here are photographs by August Kotzsch from the 1870s. A pioneer of German photography, Kotzsch photographed nature – often the details of trees, tufts of undergrowth and strange, unpopulated quiet corners. Works such as Thiergarten, Leaves with Stream c.1865 are done with an objective eye, but don’t seem like that now. Kotzsch, like Ghirri, worked in a small geographical area near. Kotzsch in Loschwitz, (for Ghirri it was Ravenna). As with Ghirri’s works, there is something melancholy about these images. Ghirri loved the quietly spoken conflation of the natural pushed against the man-made, as he reveals in his series of photos of potted plants in various cities – Modena, 1973, France, 1978, Amsterdam, 1973. Captured in isolation, these tragicomic pictures are eulogies to loneliness, loss, incongruity. Demand adds to this by including his work, Hydroculture 2010. Three sterile-looking plants sit on a tiled floor looking as if waiting to be examined in a laboratory.
Trees – both real and unreal appear elsewhere in the exhibition. In Tacita Dean’s silent film Pie, we watch the magpies in the high branches as seen from her studio window. Elsewhere are the photographs of Jan and Joel Martel famous ‘cubist trees’ – concrete trees commissioned in the gardens of the Exposition internationals des arts decoratifs et industriels modernes. Concrete because the designer (Robert Mallet-Stevens), found real trees too ‘bordélique’ (messy).
What is the effect of these disparate array of images? And how does this all relate to Magritte? It is not just Magritte’s traditional surreal juxtaposition that is of interest, but also his games with visual (and verbal) language. And these come across elsewhere in this show – both in Rodney Graham’s wonderful looped film Phonokinetoscope in which Graham takes an (acid) trip around Berlin’s Tiergarten, and Chris Garofalo’s wonderful, fictitious ceramic sea creatures. The links between all the works here go beyond the physicality of the exhibition. For example, Garofalo’s creatures would not look out of place at the Musée Océanographique de Monaco (where a sad Damien Hirst exhibition got lost among the other dead fish).
Demand’s focus on Magritte as a starting point in this exhibition has liberated the artist from the confines of the adolescent bedroom. About time too. As the forthcoming exhibition at Tate Liverpool of Magritte’s work aims to show, the artist was far more complex, linguistically engaged than he is given credit for. A visual prankster not. And as this exhibition shows, his legacy goes beyond surrealism to encompass the expressionistic, the romantic, the sublime, and much more besides.