Parisian Paradoxes

Written by Frederik van Dam


A couple of weeks ago, I had the good fortune of spending two days in the city of light. Following professional as well as personal inclinations, I visited three exhibitions, which were strikingly different in size, organization, and
ambition – different to such an extent, indeed, that only the chilly and surly
demeanor of the porters at the entrance reminded me of their shared setting in Paris. In the following remarks, I would like to briefly reflect on these exhibitions so as to ponder the ways in which exhibitions shape our understanding of art, often in paradoxical ways.

The first exhibition was ‘Resolutely Modern’, an absolutely massive
retrospective of the French avant-garde painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s depictions of theatres and dancers in Montmartre have become iconic; his turn to posters as a medium for his art was revolutionary. Consider, for instance, La Goulue, a poster that is on display at this exhibition in the various stages of the printing process. The exhibition explores the many intersections between Toulouse-Lautrec’s work and that of his contemporaries. In the very first space, for instance, his work is compared to that of his teacher, Fernand Cormon, a historical painter. Seeing Cormon’s tableaux, the viewer is faced with a view of history that is marked not by the progress of civilization but by barbarity. This notion illuminates the art of Toulouse-Lautrec, in which supposedly civilized life is stripped of its veneer, so as to show the animality that lurks beneath. More recognizable points of reference, such as Degas and van Gogh, are present as well. Like these artists, Toulouse-Lautrec is one of the painters of modern urban life, and its seedy side in particular; his art has been pigeonholed as decadent or, less charitably, degenerate – a view that was reinforced by his physical disability and his bohemian lifestyle (at the exhibition, one learns that Toulouse-Lautrec sometimes stayed in brothels for weeks on end). As such, Toulouse-Lautrec’s work questions the distinction between high art (culture for the elite) and low art (culture for mass-consumption) that was so characteristic of his own time.
On the one hand, his works did not result in financial gain, but were
appreciated an bought by people belonging to his inner circle. On the other
hand, he took ‘vulgar’ culture as his subject, which may lead one to infer that his works were meant as an appeal to popular taste. In other words, Toulouse-Lautrec tried to have his cake and eat it. Yet, in the long run, his approach was successful, as this exhibition shows: a huge portion of his work is now displayed in the Grand Palais, a cultural epicentre, in an exhibition that spans three floors. The exhibition is so vast that as one proceeds, one begins to believe that it will never end. The story that the exhibition tells, then, is different from the effect that it achieves: while the exhibition explores the local and particular qualities of this marginal artist, it at the same time sanctifies this art as being of universal and everlasting value. My own feeling, on leaving the exhibition, was that, perhaps, Toulouse-Lautrec’s work was too popular, too vulgar, and that this
excessive vulgarity (which I here use in the qualitative and not the evaluative sense of the word) was what has made these works so prestigious in the long run.

The second exhibition was suffused with a more intimate atmosphere. I first discovered the wonderful Musée Jacquemart André in 2013, when my interest in Victorian literature led me to the museum’s exhibition of Victorian art, Désirs & volupté à l’époque victorienne. This exhibition showcased works from private collection of Pérez Simón. The exhibition that I saw this year featured works from another private collection, that of Alvaro Saieh and Ana Guzmán, ‘one of the most precious and little-known private collections of Renaissance art in the world’, as the booklet informs us. Unlike the monumental scale of the Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition at the Grand Palais, which mostly consists of works that are in public hands,
and which promises to give the audience an overview, the exhibitions at Musée Jacquemart André appeal to a more select audience, composed of connoisseurs who already have such an overview, and who will be able to appreciate these private collections without the help of a framework. In the case of Désirs & Volupté, I managed to find my way, which was partly due to the fact that as a Victorianist I could place the paintings I saw. In the case of The Alana Collection: Masterpieces of Italian Painting, however, I was lost.
And this was unexpected, for there is a strong synergy between the exhibition and the museum’s permanent collection, which has a focus on medieaval and early modern works of art: an introductory film nicely highlights the many echoes that are thus created. No, I think I felt lost not because of my inability to understand the works in themselves, but because of their presentation. The exhibition’s title already points to nature of the problem: whereas in the case of Désirs & Volupté the name of the
collector was willing to share his collection with the wider public was hidden in the text itself, in the case of The Alana Collection, their names were emphatically present. The exhibition is in many ways a tribute to their willingness to share their works with the wider public. The first room of the exhibition tries to replicate the benefactors’ living room, where their paintings vie for space. While the effort is an interesting one, its purpose is all too obvious, and the result makes it difficult to examine and scrutinize the actual works. Even more, the exhibition even features a rather hastily taken photograph of their living quarters, so that viewers can fully appreciate these works’ contemporary location.


The first room of the exhibition, replicating the benefactors’ living room


The benefactors’ actual living room

As a result, the actual paintings get short shrift, even though these are magnificent. What the visitor remembers is the name of the collectors, but perhaps not in the way that the collectors envisioned. This is not meant as a jibe: without the efforts of private collectors such as Alvaro Saieh and Ana Guzmán, the art world would not be able to function in the way that it does, and it is their good right to ask that their willingness to share their passion with the world be acknowledged and recognized. What I want to highlight is another paradoxical effect: if one so openly asks for recognition, as in the present exhibition, the opposite effect is achieved. To be truly successful, an exhibition should let the collection speak for itself; only thus will the interested viewer fully appreciate the care that the collectors have taken, and be willing to recognize as benefactors, in the full sense of the word. I am aware of the irony that, of course, by addressing this issue, I have paid the collectors the compliment of talking about them rather than their collection.

The third exhibition which I saw replicated a similar dynamic on an international stage. The musée du Luxembourg, which lies adjacent to the French senate, features an exhibition with masterpieces from ‘The golden age of British painting: from Reynolds to Turner’. These works are on loan from Tate Britain. By allowing a select choice of works to travel to the heart of France, British art is given an ambassadorial function. It is paradoxical to encounter these British masterpieces in a French setting, but the effect is salutary one. The curators have created a fine and interesting narrative, one which manages to sustain the viewer’s interest, which is difficult to maintain when one is submerged in the halls of their home, as in the exhibition on Toulouse-Lautrec. As a result, this exhibition sheds some new, fresh light on works that viewers thought they already knew. One particular surprise, for me, was the inclusion of John Martin’s The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (1822), which is the final painting, to be seen when one leaves the exhibition. I will readily confess that I did not know this work. Martin’s work has only quite recently been revalued: while
his sublime historical tableaux were very popular in the early nineteenth
century, his work was considered too dramatic and excessive for Victorian
tastes. But it was not the innate qualities of this painting that struck me;
nor was I reminded of the nineteenth-century preoccupation with antiquity,
which is one of my own research interests. The first thing that came to mind – my mind, at least – was the album cover of ‘Sweet Apocalypse’, a beautiful
collection of haunting melodies by the contemporary German pianist Lambert, who always performs while wearing a Sardinian mask. This album’s cover is a painting by Mioke and shows the musician walking with a child towards an eruption of light, whose source remains unknown (but given the album’s title, it appears most sinister). 


The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum 


Albumcover Sweet Apocalypse

There is of course a striking difference: whereas in Martin’s painting the citizens of Pompeii attempt to flee the apocalypse behind them, in
Mioke’s painting two individuals calmly walk towards it. (Incidentally, Mioke’s creation of the painting can be reviewed here). At the end of this wonderful exhibition in the musée du Luxembourg, then, with the crème-de-la-crème of British painting behind me, I saw an artwork by a (for me) unknown artist, which made me think of the painting of the cover of an album by a pianist who performs anonymously, but whose music thus, paradoxically, is reaching an ever-growing audience. Whether Lambert and Mioke are consciously referring to Martin’s painting, I cannot say; intertextuality may work in mysterious ways, as theorists such as Julia Kristeva and Roland Barthes have shown. What I can say, is that in our times anonymity may be a better guarantee for creating
forms of imaginative engagement.

Yoga and Cultural Appropriation

Written by Roel Smeets

4:30 AM. While my 5-month-old daughter is still asleep, I go downstairs to do my daily meditation and yoga practice before she wakes up. Since three years or so, I practice Ashtanga Yoga, a dynamic sequence of postures characterized by a synchronization of breath and movement. This style of yoga originates from the Indian southwestern city Mysore, where Sri K. Patthabhi Jois (1915-2009) founded the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in 1948. In Ashtanga Yoga, ‘Mysore’ refers to the way it was originally taught by Patthabi Jois. Whereas most yoga nowadays is taught collectively in led-classes with teachers indicating the pace, Mysore style Ashtanga Yoga is practised individually and taught one-on-one within a group setting.

When I first set foot in a Mysore room early one morning, I was struck by the electricity in the air. People breathing like Darth Vader (called ‘ujjayi
breath’). Sweat dripping from strong, supple bodies. Energetic, flowing
movements. Initially, I was primarily drawn to the physical aspects of the
practice. I felt that there was something poetic about folding your body into a variety of geometrical shapes. As I continued to practice, my interest in
yoga’s cultural roots grew. Obviously, I knew that yoga was more than just a
physical workout, but the exact nature and history of this spiritual tradition
were largely unknown to me. I started reading some of the classical yoga texts, such as the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali (400 CE), and delved into yoga
scholarship. I learned the Sanskrit words of the Ashtanga Yoga chants by heart. Meditation gradually became a more important part of my practice. But as I emerged myself into the history and customs of this tradition, a feeling of unease started to grow upon me.

This is why. Modern yoga as practised in the West is an obvious example of cultural appropriation, in the sense that elements from a minority culture are adopted by the dominant culture and transformed into something differently. The rationale is this:

– Yoga is a spiritual tradition originating from India

– People from India are minorities in Western countries, and
India has a history of colonization by Westerners

– Yoga is practised on a large scale in the West and has
become a billion dollar industry

– In the West, the term ‘yoga’ now denotes something that is
different from its original meaning and uses

To be clear, I am definitely not the first to point this out. Especially in light
of India’s colonial history, it is striking to see that this spiritual tradition is now subject to modern forms of colonization and appropriation. It is thus not strange that India has uttered the wish to reclaim yoga.

Still, practising yoga as a Westerner, or as someone who does not have Indian roots, does not necessarily make you a bad person. As most cultural phenomena, yoga is not a stable, fixed practice, it is in constant flux and has witnessed many transformations over the centuries – arguably, the recent Westernization of yoga is just one of those changes. However, I think that yoga practitioners do have a moral obligation to be aware of the the way yoga has changed as a result of its appropriation by Westerners. To help raise such awareness, I will outline one of yoga’s transformations that took place during its rise in the West.

Most people nowadays associate yoga with physical postures on a mat. This association is, however, something fairly recent. As scholars James Mallinson and Mark Singleton describe in Roots of yoga (2017), most ancient writings on yoga instruct students in a multifaceted system of which physical postures is just one of several ‘limbs’. These range from fourfold to fifteenfold systems. Ashtanga Yoga, for instance, is based on an eightfold system as described in one of the most well known yoga texts, the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali (400 CE). The first two limbs – niyama  and yama
relate to behaviour towards oneself and others, such as discipline (tapas) and non-violence (ahimsa). These limbs bear similarities to the moral codes prescribed in various religious strands, such as the Christian ten commandments. Postures (asana) is the only limb referring to the physical postures that most people associate yoga with today. Interestingly, the Yoga Sūtras do not contain any instructions about how to do a headstand or to how put your leg behind your head, asana simply refers to a ‘steady and
comfortable’ seated position. This seated position is perfect for working on
the other limbs such as breath-control (pranayama), sense withdrawal (pratyahara), focus (dharana), and meditation (dhyana). Finally, the goal of all of this is to reach a state of samadhi, commonly defined as union, absorption, or enlightenment.


Physical postures are just one element of yoga. Although later yoga texts such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (1500 CE) describe more complex postures than just the seated position described in the Yoga Sūtras, it is clear that the focus on the physical aspect of yoga only came into being in the twentieth century. In most Western countries, yoga today seems to  exclusively refer to asana, and is commonly considered as just one of many physical workout routines, which is exemplified by the fact that fitness studios and sport centres often provide yoga classes (also at Radboud Sports Centre). The clearest example of modern-day Western yoga’s
prioritization of the physical aspect is the existence of yoga championships, where ‘yoga athletes’ are judged merely on the physical appearance of the postures.

The physical aspect of yoga drew me to the practice in the first place, and this is probably also what attracts other (Western) practitioners to it. I primarily saw it as workout, used it to train my body, and it gradually replaced my long distance runs and fitness sessions. Was I doing yoga, or was I just doing some stretching exercises? Probably the latter. But although I was not fully aware of the importance of the other limbs of yoga, breath-control (pranayama), sense withdrawal (pratyahara), focus  (dharana), and meditation (dhyana) started to become equally important aspects of my daily practice. Do I now have the right to say that I am doing yoga? I am not sure. There is a huge gray area between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. Who draws the line, and where should the line be drawn?