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Exhibition of works by Valérie Favre set to open at Galerie Barbara Thumm in Berlin
Valérie Favre, Schwan See (inspiriert von Douglas Gordon), 2015. Oil on canvas, 73,5 x 89 cm. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Barbara Thumm, Berlin. Photo: Uwe Walter.

By: Heike Fuhlbrügge

BERLIN.- Swiss-born Valérie Favre initially embarked upon a theatre and film career in Paris, but subsequently became one of France’s most important and internationally acclaimed painters. In 1998 she moved to Berlin and has taught at the city’s University of the Arts since 2006. Her paintings open up fresh narrative and conceptual perspectives, moving between figuration and abstraction. Her works are dominated by a narrative world made up of contrasts, contradictions, resistance and restlessness. Valérie Favre paints scenes developed over the course of several years in large series and work cycles. Their protagonists are monkeys, cockroaches, travellers, suicides and artists, liminal characters from the fringes of society. Favre casts them as absurd heroes, staging them in a range of different settings and staffages in which they appear to be stuck, wedged into life’s in-between spaces. She works in an openly experimental manner, using a repertory informed by art history, such as animal allegories, metaphors and symbols. Both idolised painters such as Veronese, Chardin or Géricault and colleagues such as Douglas Gorden serve as her sources of inspiration. Her demands of the medium are radical; she is always engaged in a radical interrogation of both painting and artistic work processes. One example of this is the series Balls and Tunnels , to which she only adds one work a year, planning to continue this until her death; she takes up one of society’s taboo topics in the cycle Selbstmord/ Suicide .

Theatrical space as a political space
Her work cycle with representations of theatre stages is well known. Here, she depicts the space in the picture as the “Theatrum Mundi”, which serves to create an order within the space of the stage. Individual parts, which initially seem unconnected, only make sense once perceived in their totality. Thus Favre creates an ordered space that becomes a sphere in which the implied human beholder can actively perceive and gain insight. The theatrum metaphor is a calculated artistic attempt to emphasise the distance between spectacle and spectator and juxtapose the exposed object and those that behold it. This order is reflected in formal terms in the selection of the classic triptych format: ever since the Middle Ages, this format has been regarded as particularly distinguished in Western art and is of key importance for altar pieces and devotional images. Today, the focus lies less on Christian motifs of suffering and more on the triptych’s reinterpretation as a pathos formula. Picasso, Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, Francis Bacon and Gerhard Richter have all used this reinterpretation in their works. This is the stage upon which Favre’s theatre of life unfolds, in the artist’s own words expressing the “extreme restlessness of the world”. Here she engages with the pressing issues of the modern world, such as migration, globalisation and ecology along with their political and economic ramifications, in topics such as “terms of trade”, “turbocapitalism”, “agricultural dumping” or the “valorisation” of human and non-human nature.

In the triptych Die Hellseherin ( The Prophetess , 2014/2015), the hints of a curtain and lighting help us to recognise a stage divided into three parts. On the left, we have the darkness of night, depicted in heavy, pastose colours, where a blind seer reminiscent of the mythological character Cassandra is sitting, telling us her visions of the future. The nocturnal cat clambering around the upper left corner is part of her repertory. A seahorse is also represented, and fishes often appear as a motif. The many depictions of animals in this work are to be interpreted as a form of social criticism, highlighting the concept of representation. For the way in which animals’ status in society is defined unmasks the social order of human societies. We can gain clarity on our self-definition as humans through the perspective of the animal “Other”. Here, the animal is the symbol of a liminal situation. For example, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari developed the concept of “becoming-animal” (A Thousand Plateaus, 1987 (1980). Their reflections are part of a concrete sociopolitical context; the idea of “becoming-animal” was formulated following the 1968 movement. “Becoming-animal” is linked politically with “becoming-revolutionary”, “becoming-minoritarian”, “becoming-child” and “becoming-woman”: “There is an entire politics of becomings-animal [...] which is elaborated in assemblages that are neither those of the family nor of religion nor of the State. Instead, they express minoritarian groups, or groups that are oppressed, prohibited, in revolt, or always on the fringe of recognized institutions” (247). Among other things, becoming-animal derives its sociopolitical relevance from its links to other shifts and changes in minorities: “all becoming is a becoming-minoritarian” (291). Here, minority does not refer to a minority in terms of numbers, but a minority in reference to the positions of power in current social structures.

The right-hand picture space then goes to the opposite extreme – it is lucid. Light and brightness shine through an open doorway into the space of the stage. Figures painted in a manner suggestive of watercolour are crowded together in this space, waiting. They are queueing, waiting for the vision of their future that Cassandra will tell them. However, their way is barred by a screen set up in the centre, which contains abstract painting in the style of Malevich and Rothko. It separates those who know from those who do not, it separates dark from light. The second large triptych with a stage model also contains representations of animals, such as a horse and a female bear. It depicts an expansive mountainous landscape; in it, there stands a naked woman. A male beholder sits upon a sofa in the right-hand space of the picture, looking towards the woman. In between these two spaces, a light geometrical plane separates the scenes from one another. Here, too, Valérie Favre takes the act of seeing as her theme, constructing viewpoints and power relations. The male figure sits on the sofa like a prostitute’s client, dominating the space of the picture with his gaze. The gaze becomes a way of directing power.

The painter
The important task and simultaneous limitation that Favre sets her medium is shown in classic topoi such as that of the painter as a monkey in a further work.

Lucas Cranach already drew a monkey as whispering advice to fools. In depictions of the five senses, the monkey is used as the animal representative of taste. For one the one hand the curious monkey that will try anything is emblematic of the glutton who gorges himself and can often be found in pictures of the Fall, where the monkey tempts Eve to taste the apple and thus sets the drama of Original Sin and the expulsion from Paradise in motion. This is why it is a “figura diaboli” and has been ever since the Physiologus.

However, a further, positive interpretation of the monkey as a trickster also emerged. The first to re-evaluate the monkey was Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75) (Janson, Apes and Ape Lore, 1952). In “De Genealogia Deorum”, Boccaccio narrates a story in which Epimetheus, the brother of Prometheus, creates the statue of a human being, for which he is turned into a monkey by Jupiter. Epimetheus’s monkey becomes the ultimate allegory of art – without any kind of religious connotation (Janson 291). Because Epimetheus sculpted a human, he was imitating the nature of the nature-imitating monkey, and thus is the monkey himself: et sic semiae imitans naturam, simia dictus est. From this point onwards, the monkey becomes the artist! The artist, who in the Middle Ages was still classed as belonging to the lower mechanical arts, has been re-valued precisely as a monkey, in the sense that the monkey emphasises the naturalness of art and the artist the naturalness of creation.

Countering ignorance
What does Favre consider the task of painting to be? It seems it should be understood as a medium of criticism. Painting should draw attention to political abuse, discomfort and existential fear. These enigmatic figures in Favre’s oeuvre seem to represent a call to establish a porous permeability of divergent interests in political terms, too, much like the necessity of a “radical democracy” propagated by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, for example. Societies are necessarily antagonistic and conflict-ridden. If these legitimate conflicting interests are not simply to be ignored and smoothed over to create consensus, we need to find institutional parameters that permit constant negotiation and safeguard the coexistence of different interests. (Ernesto Laclau/Chantal Mouffe: Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, London 1985). Valérie Favre attempts to use the medium of painting in a political manner to counter both ignorance and indeterminate unrest.

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