NICOLE EISENMAN AND THE MODERNS:
HEADS, KISSES, BATTLES
The exhibition “Nicole Eisenman and the Moderns: Heads, Kisses, Battles” establishes an unprecedented dialogue between Nicole Eisenman’s oeuvre and that of twenty-eight modern artists, including Vincent van Gogh. Seventy nineteenth and twentieth-century works from the collections of the show’s partner museums (the Aargauer Kunsthaus in Aarau, Switzerland, the Kunsthalle Bielefeld in Germany and the Kunstmuseum Den Haag in the Netherlands) and chosen by the American artist appear in a fresh and invigorating light alongside the work of Nicole Eisenman (pronouns they/them) and the themes they address: portraits (in particular heads), bathers, battles and masks. This juxtaposition is mutually enriching: it offers us an opportunity for a new reading of these modernist works of art – including those by women artists unrecognized in the history of modernism, such as Alice Bailly and Paula Modersohn-Becker – and at the same time allows us to discover the homage that Eisenman, whose practice is particularly informed by art history, pays to the painters of modern life.
Since the start of their career in the 1990s, Nicole Eisenman has engaged unceasingly with the history of art, and in particular with modernism, which they boldly explore. Between respect and irreverence for this heritage, the artist is particularly intrigued by the social, political and artistic parallels that can be drawn between the beginning of the twentieth century and our contemporary era.
Born in 1965 in Verdun, France, Nicole Eisenman grew up the affluent suburb of Scarsdale in New York State and attended the Rhode Island School of Design, from where they graduated in 1987. The New York that Nicole Eisenman knew in the 1980s rapidly forged and intensified their attraction to art and comics. Through the work of artists such as Sigmar Polke and David Wojnarowicz, and in comics magazines such as RAW, Eisenman discovered the language they would embrace in their turn. “It was raw, punk”, the artist explains, “it reflected the street culture, an alternative reality to that of my town, which was more neat and tidy”.1 Black humour appealed to them even at this early date, thanks to its ability to inject distance and fluidity into the rigid norms prevailing in our societies – in particular gender norms.
The exhibition also highlights the various influences informing Nicole Eisenman’s work, whether drawn from pop art, North American counterculture, modernism or comic books. Eisenman does not hesitate to inject confusion into painting: they sometimes adopt a kitsch aesthetic, instigating a rethinking of the structural and systemic values that organise our collective life. If their practice reflects a desire to subvert convention, it also plunges us into a carnal, open and cunning world of imagery, which appropriates “bad taste” and makes it a critical and daring category.
“Nicole Eisenman and the Moderns: Heads, Kisses, Battles” occupies the two floors of the Fondation and follows a thematic layout.
Curator: Bice Curiger, assisted by Julia Marchand and Margaux Bonopera
1. Nicole Eisenman in conversation with Clotilde Viannay, “Are we having fun yet?”, L’Incroyable, no. 3, Les Presses du Réel, October 2019, p. 14.
Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of a One-Eyed Man, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, autumn 1889
Oil on canvas, 56.5 × 36.6 cm
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)
Portraiture and self-portraiture are two of the principal genres in the history of painting. As from the nineteenth century, the hitherto idealised representation of the subject gives way to a more candid realism; throughout the twentieth century, the portrait and the self-portrait are no longer intended solely to represent the sitter, but also to reveal their inner life. Vincent van Gogh, whose many self-portraits are well known, is part of this trend, painting individuals from modest backgrounds – peasants and simple labourers – and even the sick. In his Portrait of a One-Eyed Man, executed in 1889, he has chosen as his model a patient at the psychiatric hospital in Saint- Rémy-de-Provence, where Van Gogh himself was a resident at this time. Nicole Eisenman, too, devotes themself to self-portraiture, as witnessed by their watercolours Self-Portrait with Mr. Monopoly (1994) and Self-Portrait at Night (2015), here presented opposite Head in Red (ca. 1930/31) by Karl Ballmer, executed in a style bordering on abstraction.
Also on show in this room is Nicole Eisenman’s Night Studio (2009), portraying two figures lying side by side in an intimate setting. One of them, completely naked and wearing a bowler hat, seems to have adopted the elegant pose of a classical sculpture. The beam cast by the lamp in the foreground illuminates her bosom as well as her partner’s pubis, fostering an atmosphere of latent eroticism. These two bodies, with their vibrant and shimmering skin colours, appear to float in a space where both abstract motifs and bibliographic references reign. The classical painting is subverted by the contemporary present, which interferes in the composition via the presence of bottles of beer and vitamin water alongside numerous volumes on art history, including books on Japonisme and Henri Matisse.
Nicole Eisenman, Progress: Real and Imagined, 2006
Oil and mixed media on canvas (diptychon), each 234.5 × 481 × 5 cm
Ringier Collection, Switzerland. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth © Nicole Eisenman
Nicole Eisenman’s diptych Progress: Real and Imagined (2006) is a manifesto work, in which we find themes dear to the artist – the self-portrait, the representation of an Arcadia, the nude, the group scene – and a multitude of pictorial styles. Elements of Eisenman’s private life here mingle with symbols of popular culture and references to art history. On the lefthand panel, the artist shows themself at work, surrounded by brushes, blank sheets and pictures painted in thick impasto, which seem to oblige Eisenman to hunch forwards in an imaginary studio carried by a red boat sailing on the sea. On the right-hand panel, a vast wealth of details and scenes make up a teeming and virtuoso ensemble. We can make out several groups of figures, apparently interacting in a harmonious community – a sort of female Arcadia from an ideal, pre-industrial era, where animals are omnipresent, but where the apocalypse seems imminent. The absurdity of certain situations and the presence of comical objects echo the works of the Flemish and Italian Renaissance, as symbols interrogating our contemporary era and the threats that hang over it.
Near this imposing work is Fuga (1919), in which Belgian artist Gustave van de Woestyne has chosen to represent himself well dressed and surrounded by animals, in front of a church and a tree.
Nicole Eisenman, Tiff Writing Poetry, 2016
Ink and watercolor on paper, 36 × 51 cm
Martin & Rebecca Eisenberg. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth © Nicole Eisenman
Rooms C & E
The representation of women and men bathing is a staple stylistic exercise in the history of western painting. From antiquity to the Renaissance, it is also an ingenious means of legitimising the voyeurism of the viewer. Co Westerik resolutely departs from the classic iconography of this type of scene in Man in the Water, Woman in a Boat (1959). This painting, which is characteristic of the Dutch artist’s style, can produce mixed feelings in the viewer, between repulsion and fascination. Carefully building up his compositions in multiple layers of tempera or oil, Co Westerik typically portrays parts of the body in close-up, giving us a view of what “good taste” would nevertheless prefer to hide. Nicole Eisenman, too, is interested in the representation of the human body on the beach. In their seaside scenes, made on Fire Island, New York, they often portray friends enjoying moments of idleness or creativity, alone or in a group, and capture peaceful moods.
Alice Bailly, Le Thé (Tea), 1914
Oil on canvas, 49 × 65 cm
Aargauer Kunsthaus, Aarau
Group scenes are found throughout Eisenman’s oeuvre and are frequently set in beer gardens – following 19th-century Impressionist tradition. In Beer Garden with Ash/AK (2009), which can be seen as an homage to Dance at the Moulin de la Galette (1876) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), the social gathering takes place against the backdrop of the 2008 financial crisis. For the American artist, the beer garden is “where we meet to […] commiserate about how the world is a fucked-up place”.2 Painting, which Eisenman sees as a solitary activity, here allows them to bring together on the canvas the different communities with which they choose to surround themself, and in so doing to establish a vital bridge between themself and others. For these beer garden pictures are also about personal loneliness – perhaps similar to that felt by certain artists in the past. Nicole Eisenman says in this context: “I think of whom Van Gogh chose to invite into his studio – sometimes you just need people around, even the postman.”3
This room also shows other venues and moments of social contact, such as the painting Tea (1914) by Swiss artist Alice Bailly, and Max Beckmann’s engravings of various interiors, including a fashionable salon, a brothel and an asylum.
2. Nicole Eisenman in conversation with Brian Sholis, “Nicole Eisenman discusses her new exhibition in Berlin”, Artforum, 6 September 2008.
3. Stephen Knudsen, “Nicole Eisenman: the Relevance of 21st-Century Expressionism”, Artpulse, 8 May 2014.
Hermann Stenner, Dame mit Masken (Woman with Masks), 1913
Oil on canvas, 81 × 93 cm
Kunsthalle Bielefeld. Courtesy: Kunsthalle Bielefeld
The play with appearances, costumes and masks allows roles to be multiplied and in particular subverts the notion of identity in favour of an emancipatory queer fluidity. The motif of the mask also gives artists the opportunity to represent the ambiguities of the human soul. The notion of disguise is found in the paintings of Emil Nolde and Hermann Stenner, whose protagonists seemingly present themselves to our gaze, while at the same time using a mask, the stage or a costume to distance themselves from the world and to switch between different versions of their ego as they wish.
Edvard Munch, Gate i Kragerø (Village Street in Kragerø), 1911–1913
Oil on canvas, 80 × 100 cm
On permanent loan from the Staff Stiftung, Lemgo Kunsthalle Bielefeld
Vincent van Gogh painted Poppy Field while in Auvers-sur-Oise, where he lived from 20 May until his death on 29 July 1890. There, convinced that his canvasses had never been so good, Van Gogh worked hard, focusing in particular on the representation of fields and thatched roofs. Painted on a June day, this landscape seems to pulsate with movement. Below the horizon, a multitude of red dots signals the presence of delicate poppies among the alfalfa. Paula Modersohn-Becker’s 1902 Self-portrait and Edvard Munch’s group scene Village Street in Kragerø (1911–1913) bear indirect witness to the careers of their artists, both of whom withdrew for a while from life in the big city in order to devote themselves to their art. Paula Modersohn-Becker based herself for extended periods in the artistic community of Worpswede in Germany, while Edvard Munch set up his studio for a time in the small Norwegian village of Kragerø. We may easily imagine that Nicole Eisenman’s choice to go regularly to Fire Island to work and be with friends is likewise a means of nurturing their inspiration.
Nicole Eisenman, Le Kiss, 2014
Graphite on paper, 35 × 28 cm
Private collection. Courtesy: the artist and Barbara Weiss Gallery © Nicole Eisenman
Nicole Eisenman’s oeuvre includes multiple variations on the kiss, a motif whose representation also forms a strand of modern art. We may think in particular of Constantin Brancusi’s emblematic series of sculptures titled The Kiss, commenced in 1907: the fusional embrace of Brancusi’s couple may have inspired Nicole Eisenman’s own treatments of the motif. Working in a variety of techniques, the artist focuses on the upper bodies of the two protagonists seen in profile, on their faces and their fusing lips, reducing the image to its essentials. The question of the lovers’ gender is relegated to the background, allowing a celebration of love freed from rigid notions. The bulging eye in Nicole Eisenman’s Kiss Deux (2015) introduces a touch of the grotesque into this intimate scene and raises questions as to the possible violence underlying it.
Nicole Eisenman, Nachbarschaft Polizeistaat (Neighborhood Police State), 1995
Collage and ink on paper, 83.5 × 123.7 cm
Private collection. Courtesy of the artist and Barbara Weiss Gallery
Photo: Jens Ziehe © Nicole Eisenman
Rooms M & N
For centuries, the figuration of battles was confined to history painting. With the advent of modernism, closely linked to the two world wars, a significant shift took place in the codes of representation: battle scenes became more unstructured and more critical.
In Nicole Eisenman’s figurative art, the battles are waged at different, simultaneously intimate and political levels and are steeped in feminist demands. They take the form of identity or social struggles and invite the viewer, through the subtle use of humour, exaggeration or satire, to question the systems and norms that govern our societies, as well as the taboos that ossify them. Eisenman’s drawing Neighbourhood Police State (1995) shares with James Ensor’s etching Devils Thrashing Angels and Archangels (1888) the same nervous and violent energy, underscoring the stylistic lineage within which the American artist takes their place.
Gerd Arntz, Profit / Zeit Geister (Profit / Spirits of the Age), 1934 (1982)
Woodcut, 34.2 × 12.6 cm
Kunstmuseum Den Haag, The Hague © ADAGP, Paris, 2022
This room presents thirteen woodcuts by Gerd Arntz. Treating a variety of subjects, these works are all intended to deliver a political message about the world, social relations, war and capitalism, through a graphic design in black and white.
Working in a Constructivist tradition, the German artist creates images that all can comprehend, thanks to a powerful and effective visual language based chiefly on stylisation and the use of pictograms. Gerd Arntz, who fled Nazi Germany in 1934, is today considered the father of modern signage.
Max von Moos, Die Sünde (Schlangenzauber) (The Sin [Snake Charm]), 1930
Tempera and oil on cardboard, 80.5 × 54 cm
Aargauer Kunsthaus, Aarau
Photo: Brigitt Lattmann © ADAGP, Paris, 2022
“When you can’t think of what to draw, draw a head,” Nicole Eisenman advises, underlining her attraction to this motif.4Far from being realistic portraits of sitters, the heads created by the American artist can be seen as representations of the different facets of the human condition and the many emotions that pass through us. Executed in 1930, the painting Sin (Snake Charm) by the Swiss Surrealist Max von Moos presents certain similarities with works by Eisenman, who likewise does not hesitate to modify and accentuate certain parts of the body. Here, the accent falls on the strange hands of this hybrid creature, who cannot be identified as a woman and who seems fascinated by the snake. The eyes – whose protuberance recalls certain protagonists of Eisenman’s works – play an important role in the relationship established between reptile and human: their physical proximity on the canvas lends a profound intensity to the look exchanged between them, which is charged with symbolism.
An erotic dimension can also be detected in this work, conveyed in particular by the position of the figure’s left hand and the presence of the colour red, which may here be associated with the birth of desire.
4. Nicole Eisenman in conversation with Faye Hirsch, “Nicole Eisenman’s Year of Printing Prolifically”, Art in Print, vol. 2, no. 5, January–February 2013.
This exhibition has been organized in partnership with the Aargauer Kunsthaus Aarau (Switzerland), the Kunsthalle Bielefeld (Germany) and the Kunstmuseum Den Haag (Netherlands)
The Fondation Vincent van Gogh Arles thanks its partners:
Banque Populaire Méditerranée | Blackwall Green | Hiscox | Fondation Denibam