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Exhibition at Pompidou Metz considers works of art made from an elevated perspective
Journalists look at "La campagne de France vue du ciel" wool carpet, dated 1985-1991 by François-Xavier Lalanne during the presentation of the exhibition "Vues d'en haut" at the Centre Pompidou in Metz, eastern France, on May 14, 2013. AFP PHOTO / JEAN-CHRISTOPHE VERHAEGEN.

METZ.- Views from above considers how an elevated perspective, from the first aerial photographs of the nineteenth century to the satellite images of Google Earth, has transformed artists' perception of the world.

Covering more than 2,000 square metres, the exhibition gives us the power of Icarus and in over 400 works (paintings, photographs, drawings, films, architecture models, installations, books, reviews…) offers a singular and spectacular view of modern and contemporary art.

There has been a considerable regain in interest in the aerial view over recent years. From the success of Yann Arthus-Bertrand's Earth From Above to the popularity of Google Earth, we are fascinated by this bird's-eye view as much for the beauty of the landscapes it reveals as the feeling of omnipotence it inspires.

The exhibition draws on this popularity to return to the origins of aerial photography and explore its impact on the work of artists and, consequently, the history of art.

When Nadar took his first aerial photographs from a hot-air balloon, circa 1860, he gave artists their first indications of the world they knew but had never seen from so high. An elevated perspective blurs landmarks and relief, slowly transforming the land into a flat surface whose visual reference points are no longer distinguishable one from the other.

Right up to today, artists, photographers, architects and filmmakers have continued to explore the aesthetic and semantic implications of this extraordinary vantage point. Now this fascinating journey is the subject of an unprecedented multidisciplinary exhibition.

An innovative scenography in eight themed sections takes visitors through time as well as space, gradually rising from the balcony scenes of the first works on display to views from a hot-air balloon, an airship, an aeroplane, and finally a satellite.

The exhibition, in two parts, begins in the Grande Nef of Centre Pompidou-Metz with works spanning the years 1850 to 1945 then continues, on a higher level, in Galerie 1 with works from 1945 to the present. Contemporary works are included in the "historic" sections to create a counterpoint.

Grande Nef
Visitors, who are greeted by early photographs by Nadar and James Wallace Black, are immediately struck by the visual Displacement which inspired artists, in particular Impressionist painters such as Claude Monet and Gustave Caillebotte. Street scenes appear flattened from their elevated vantage point; the horizon disappears from their paintings. Artists rise, literally, to the challenge of exploring the different angles offered to them by these unprecedented and unexpected views.

Photographers such as Léon Gimpel use this new perspective to spectacular effect in images for the illustrated press. As aviation developed and aerial images grew in popularity, more and more avant-garde artists were seduced by this bird's-eye view. From the early Cubist compositions of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque to the urban scenes portrayed by Fernand Léger, Félix Vallotton and Gino Severini, or Robert Delaunay's plunging views of the Eiffel Tower, artists abandon the Renaissance linear perspective to distort and fracture the Euclidean plane.

The First World War was a watershed in the history of aerial photography. Increasingly, the trenches were photographed from military planes, their flattened, geometric forms suggestive of emerging Abstract painting. This is less a case of cause and effect and more a fascinating correspondence between technical progress and artistic invention.

Abstraction features in the next section, Planimetric, with works by Oskar Schlemmer, Edward Wadsworth, Piet Mondrian, Russian artists including Kasimir Malevich and El Lissitzky, and Bauhaus figures such as Moholy-Nagy, Paul Klee and Vasily Kandinsky.

This exploration of two-dimensional space continues in the following section, Extension. The field of vision is extended when in the air, in a plane or a helicopter. Lászlό Moholy-Nagy referred to a "more complete experience of space" which, like his fellow Hungarian Andor Weininger, he transcribes in vast stage designs. It inspired Josef Albers for his painting, while the artists in the De Stijl group transpose the idea of extended space into an axonometric system with no vanishing point.

In the 1920s the elevated perspective became a symbol of modernity; it also produced a sense of Detachment. The world appears different, unrecognisable, from above. Sense of scale disappears as micro and macro blur into one. New Vision photography, which had advocates both in France (André Kertesz, Germaine Krull, Eli Lotar) and Germany (Robert Petschow, Umbo, Andreas Feininger), takes full advantage of this peculiar view. A selection of films and photographs of an iconic subject, the transporter bridge in Marseilles, highlights Moholy-Nagy's influence on this new vision.

The fifth section, Domination, considers the fascination and excitement of seeing the world from above; of sharing the omnipotence of a view ordinarily reserved for the gods. The individual, when seen from the sky, loses its singularity to become an indistinct part of a "mass spectacle". The airplane's speed thrills the Aeropittura Futurista artists. This sense of supremacy is as much a force for Le Corbusier in his study of urban design viewed from a plane as for American photographer Margaret Bourke-White in her overhead shots of New York.

Galerie 1
In Galerie 1, the visitor enters a much vaster, lighter space. Leaving war-torn Europe behind, we are soothed by the wide-open spaces of America, captured in the abstract painting of Richard Diebenkorn, Mark Tobey and Sam Francis. The aerial vision captivates artists on this side of the Atlantic too, in particular Jean Dubuffet. In Australia it emerges from the dream imagery of Aboriginal ancestors.

Aerial photography is central to the sixth section, Topographie, and also a major component of Land Art, represented by Robert Smithson, Dennis Oppenheim and Peter Hutchinson who make extensive use of elevated perspectives when documenting their interventions on the vast scale of natural landscapes. With Marcel Griaule's archaeological explorations, this section shows how aerial photography can reveal traces and structures that would be invisible at ground-level. Architects such as Dominique Perrault show equal concern for the traces their work leaves on the ground, not forgetting Frei Otto's "roof-clouds".

The seventh section, Urbanisation, goes further in examining the revelatory powers of the aerial view, this time focusing on artists' fascination with urban grids. Ed Ruscha, Gerhard Richter, Wolfgang Tillmans, Zoe Leonard and Balthasar Burkhard deliver their interpretation of the urban fabric in sometimes sweeping, sometimes fragmented views. Members of the International Situationist movement propose their critical reading of the modern city, while David Goldblatt and Wilfrid Almendra consider the collective utopia embodied in tracts of lookalike housing.

The final section, Supervision, considers the use of aerial and satellite images for intelligence gathering and surveillance, from CCTV in city centres to images sent from military drones, a subject explored by Harun Farocki as well as Sigmar Polke. Images of the world seen from above also serve environmental protection by alerting populations to potential threats. From Georg Gerster to Emmet Gowin, Alex MacLean or Yann Arthus-Bertrand, there are now numerous practitioners of aerial photography internationally. The exhibition ends with the influence of Google Earth on contemporary creation.

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