“SAFETY CURTAIN” 2018/2019 Pierre Alechinsky

The exhibition series Safety Curtain is a project of museum in progress in cooperation with the Wiener Staatsoper and the Bundestheater-Holding, kindly supported in 2018 by the Kingdom of Belgium, the Wallonie-Bruxelles International (WBI) and Belcolade (Puratos Austria GmbH). 

For the 21st Safety Curtain, the jury (Daniel Birnbaum and Hans-Ulrich Obrist) selected the internationally renowned Belgian artist Pierre Alechinsky. Safety Curtain is an exhibition series conceived by museum in progress (www.mip.at) in cooperation with Wiener Staatsoper that has been transforming the safety curtain of the main stage into an exhibition space for contemporary art since 1998. The large-format pictures (176 square metres) are fixed on the safety curtain with magnets. The Safety Curtains are exhibited over the period of one opera season and can be seen before the start of the opera, during the pause and at the end of the performance. 

At the press presentation, seven limited and signed lithographs from various work periods of the artist will be shown as well (see: www.mip.at/shop/pierre-alechinsky-lithographien). By purchasing them, art and opera enthusiasts will be making an important contribution to the continuation of this exhibition series. These works, which feature many-layered references to the Safety Curtain, will also be exhibited at the opera house and they can be seen during performance visits. Additionally these lithographs will be presented in the display windows of Privat Bank Vienna in Operngasse 2. 

Since 1998 Safety Curtains have been realised by the following artists: 

Kara Walker (1998/1999), Christine and Irene Hohenbüchler (1999/2000), Matthew Barney (2000/2001), Richard Hamilton (2001/2002), Giulio Paolini (2002/2003), Thomas Bayrle (2003/2004), Tacita Dean (2004/2005), Maria Lassnig (2005/2006), Rirkrit Tiravanija (2006/2007), Jeff Koons (2007/2008), Rosemarie Trockel (2008/2009), Franz West (2009/2010), Cy Twombly (2010/2011), Cerith Wyn Evans (2011/2012), David Hockney (2012/2013), Oswald Oberhuber (2013/2014), Joan Jonas (2014/2015), Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster (2015/2016), Tauba Auerbach (2016/2017) and John Baldessari (2017/2018). 

A moment of slowing down 
Pierre Alechinsky talking to Hans-Ulrich Obrist 

Pierre Alechinsky: When I painted the picture – I hardly dare say it to the Viennese – it was a memory for me of the Atlantic Wall. The sea meant waiting for someone coming from the sea. 

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: That’s certainly a fascinating way of looking at it. 

PA: I don’t have any other. 

HUO: So we have here the Atlantic Wall, and … 

PA: … the horizon, the sea. 

HUO: There’s no sea in Austria. As in Switzerland, the mountains block the view of the sea. 

PA: The wave in the picture shows a natural movement. Apart from one place, I can imagine a head, a mouth, two eyes – in a fraction of a second. 

HUO: A face. 

PA: Yes, a hidden face. But I don’t ask the viewer to see it. There are many people who don’t see the face. 

HUO: But they will sit in front of it for some time. During the year, the hundreds of thousands of people sitting in front of it for half an hour will inevitably see things. They will spend more time in front of it than they would in front of a picture in a museum. 

PA: They are condemned to look. 

HUO: They will see a lot. They can see a wall, a face, and there is the wave. All of this moves around corners; there are rises and falls, intervals, pauses, and tranquillity. And then there’s the interesting frame. 

PA: The frame with these dashes, the track of the brush, is based on a strategic consideration and is designed to slow down the viewing time. As the main strokes in the picture are isolated, the different speeds can be seen. It is easy to see that some brushstrokes were done very quickly, and others more thoughtfully. But that is only recognizable if there is a moment of slowing down. I use this method almost systematically. 

HUO: So the dashes are a moment of slowing down. 

PA: Yes, so as to make the important lines readable. 

HUO: Sometimes there are dashes, sometimes crosses. 

PA: This happens when I lift the brush. I discovered this form in a drawing by Hans Arp. He lifted his brush as it is taught in the Far East, where every brushstroke has its own name. 

HUO: I like the idea of the absence of colour. 

PA: It has to be said that the predominant colour in the Opera is not very enticing. 

HUO: It’s very baroque. 

PA: The orchestra is the actual work here. At some distance from it there is a whole range of colours. I said to myself that the colours are the elegantly clothed women. In a moment the audience will be plunged into darkness and then the colours will appear on the stage and scenery. 

Loin d’ici: Far away from here 
Jean Frémon 

The safety curtain at the theatre is a painted vertical surface that conceals from view what is going on behind it. It offers the audience an immobile spectacle before the spectacle proper, because of which the audience has come, begins. This curtain has two functions: it both shows and hides. And then it has a third one: it helps us to be patient. The safety curtain is an invitation to a journey. In the hustle and bustle of the spectators taking their seats in the brightly lit room, looking out for acquaintances and greeting them from far away, the stage curtain has a calming effect. 

Pierre Alechinsky’s curtain takes the part of a counterpoint. Its sober black and white creates a contrast to the splendour and the lights of the room, with its elegantly dressed audience and the amiabilities exchanged from a distance. It is a horizon, an empty horizon that refrains from competing with the action being prepared behind it. A maritime horizon into which projects a band of clouds driven by a tempest, as here, from right to left, from east (the ‘court side’)* to west (the ‘garden side’)*. This movement, made by the painting hand, is counteracted or balanced by a gesture in the opposite direction, from left to right, of a huge wave at the bottom of the curtain – a wave that rises, reaches its peak, and will carry us with it as it descends. This extreme sensitivity for lateral movement is one of Pierre Alechinsky’s trademarks. Originally a left-hander but converted at the age when he was taught how to write, he has kept distinct traces of it in his work as a painter. It is his right hand that writes from left to right, albeit under constraint. One can feel that if it were free it would take the other way. But it is his left hand that paints without any impediments, neither social nor physical ones. It is hard for the hand that writes. The hand that paints is the one that dreams, dances, twirls around, and invents a language. 

The title is Loin d’ici, which is thus an invitation to a journey. Marine horizons have been a frequent subject in Pierre Alechinsky’s art, particularly since his large-sized composition entitled La Mer noire [The Black Sea], painted in 1988 in memory of his father, who came from Odessa. The artist revisited the theme when he illustrated the poem Le Volturno by Blaise Cendrars. Volturno was a Canadian ocean liner cruising between Rotterdam and New York. Having caught fire, it sank in the ocean in 1913. For the book, Alechinsky drew marine horizons with the silhouette of a ship appearing in the distance, with smoke rising from it. Just like in the famous aria in Madame Butterfly: 

Un bel di, vedremo 
Levarsi un fil di fumo sull’estremo 
Confin del mare 
E poi la nave appare… 

One fine day we'll see 
A thread of smoke arising 
On the far horizon of the sea, 
And then the ship appears… 

Pierre Alechinsky chose this call of the sea, this tempest to evoke opera. As silently as smoke, the large waves of the strings and the breath of the winds and brass have approached, and soon a crystal voice will be rising. Alechinsky’s suppleness of line largely derives from his intimate knowledge of oriental calligraphy. As early as 1955 he embarked a cargo ship bound for Yokohama and realised a film about Japanese calligraphy in Tokyo and Kyoto. His tools have long been a Japanese ink brush and big sheets of rice paper from China. 

In the black landmass set off against the sea, we can see an enigmatic notch surrounded by small, flickering touches made with a pointed brush. We do not know anything about its meaning, except that it could possibly be a sign or a symptom that psychoanalysis might be able to decipher. Would not the native city of Sigmund Freud be the ideal place for this? 

* In French, the terms ‘côté cour’ and ‘côté jardin’ are used to refer to the right and left sides of the stage. 

Pierre Alechinsky 

Pierre Alechinsky was born in Brussels in 1927. The artist has lived and worked in France since 1951. The artist’s work is related to tachisme, abstract expressionism and lyrical abstraction. He was a central figure in CoBrA, a legendary artists’ group founded in Paris in 1948. 

Alechinsky’s works have been presented in numerous major exhibitions as for instance at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Venice Biennial, the Documenta in Kassel, at the Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and the National Museum of Art in Osaka. In 2018 Pierre Alechinsky was awarded the Praemium Imperiale of the Japan Art Association.