by Vidur SethiApr 22, 2022
The complexity of spirituality, occupying the treatises dedicated to mythology and cosmology, has been equally scrutinised by the artists of different generations across history. The French artist and photographer, Georges Poncet, with the current exhibition Spiritus at Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Paris, invites the viewers to unfold the many layers of spirituality, delineated in art history and civilisations, through the lens of photography. As a photographer, Poncet has been taking photographs of the Egyptian antiquities collection available at the Louvre Museum, Paris. As part of his work at the Louvre, Poncet relooked at the long history of diverse civilisations to arrive at extraordinary moments such as the discovery of Coptic art of early Christianity, and the commissioned project to document the tomb of Sennedjem in Luxor. Subsequently, the cross-cultural exchange has deepened the art of photography practiced by Poncet.
In an interview with STIR, Poncet mentions how he was introduced to the world of arts at an impressionist stage which swiftly progressed into the sincere profession of a photographer. “My journey as a photographer did not begin with the study of painting but with the shock of painting... Initiated at the age of 12 to the appearance of the image in the camera, when I saw my first paintings at the Louvre at the age of 14, I ‘understood’ the deep relationship between the icon and the past," says the visual artist. To add, the two key contemporary artists, Pierre Soulages and Anselm Kiefer, have too influenced the works of Poncet. Sharing an artistic affinity with the works of Kiefer, Poncet once mentioned, “Experiencing one of Kiefer’s artworks is an act that is both physical and intellectual. One needs time to discover the breadth of Anselm’s limitless inspiration, which brings together intimacy and history, frightening or secretive. With each of these artists, our gazes come together, become more refined, emotion emerges, and the essential happens: fidelity to the artwork is made present in the photograph.”
The distorted view of the photographs by Poncet takes the viewers a step closer to gauge what lies between the boundaries of visible and invisible. The determination to see beyond the actual focal point was established when Poncet came back to Paris from a trip to Tokyo. The quintessential lights of Tokyo cajoled the artist to recognise “the inevitability of sensuality in an image’s matter”. The experience gained during the visit to Tokyo was reflected in his renewed approach to the collection of artworks and artists at the Louvre. Emerged in the pictorial space of work, Poncet lent it body, form and colour, and the photographic gaze became his paintbrush, his material turned fluid. The conversation between the two events became a starting point for the first series of photographs, titled Sfumato, which later turned into the series on display at the Jeanne Bucher Jaeger gallery, Spiritus – the breath of life, the soul.
Following the Catholic tradition, the statues of divine figures in churches are veiled on Good Friday. Since Christ was martyred on Friday, the images of the divine are debarred from visual appearance - a moment to pause and introspect. The invisible body for the artist hints at the “discreet sensuality”, which is not to be mistaken as carnal desire. But the absence heightens the senses only to let the sensuality emerge.
The spirituality of the senses, for the photographer, is not limited to the field of theology, he finds its resonance in the iconic paintings including Cézanne’s The Quarry at Bibémus, Gustave Courbet’s river Loue near Ornans, Van Gogh’s Street in Auvers-sur-Oise, the Normandy coastline. For the Spiritus series, Poncet illustrates both “the complex memory of the places from historic paintings and the foundational sites themselves, captured in a perfect moment, in a perfect light, with a sense of immediacy and presence.” Pertinent to note, the photographer is not a mere documentator of the places - Van Gogh’s wheat fields, mountain painted by Cézanne and Courbet’s streams and grottos - he transcends to represent an authentic view, in his own right, with the quality of light and specific richness of a particular colour.
The idea of spirituality runs deep in the exhibition as the title and work suggest. But a curious mind is keen to know how the artist threads it together with the diverse works shot at churches, and play with iconic paintings. Poncet elaborates on this, “In my perception, spirituality is associated with human existence. The work on Holy Friday reveals the "veiling" in the Catholic tradition of "effigy", "icon", recalling the existence of the divine following the death of Jesus - the death of God. This veiling, taken in the literal sense, functions on the contrary here. That is to say, it stages a theophany for the one who "believes"; a hierophany for the human looking at the cosmos. This disappearance functions here as the kabbalistic notion of Tsimtsum - God's removal so that creation exists.”
The definitive perspective - play of absence and presence - in the photographs for Poncet sets the work in motion. Yet, it is also an opportune moment to rediscover the universality of thoughts i.e. transitory and eternal nature of things. Poncet concisely talks about this performance of absence and presence in the works, “It is a nice metaphor – absence and presence”, to demonstrate this transition from my ‘reality’ to abstraction. It is a whole questioning possible since the 20th century. To create an image, it is a question of being present to your emotions but also of associating them with a time component. The chronos of history, his own, intimate and a common history, general. The images that remain of the world and of our predecessors have constituted the layers of our sensitivity... of our space of perception.”
It is about the game of wait and watch if the photographer is able to establish himself like the classics he reinterprets to further cement what has been said and done on the art of spirituality.
(The exhibition Spiritus runs at Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Paris, until February 26, 2022.)