Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Francois-Marie Banier at Villa Oppenheim, Berlin

I confess I'm a sucker for art that includes text. Duane Michals' work was some of the first art to ignite my passion for photo collecting. Since then I've been excited by Augusta Wood, Graham Dolphin, Carl André, Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, and many others. So, I was eager to see the Francois-Marie Banier show at Villa Oppenheim in Berlin ( The artist has led a remarkably varied artistic life. He has painted, made photographs, written novels and plays, and is a regular contributor to magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. He is well-known in Europe and has a social life that has included some very famous names.

His photographs are often of those famous people, but the photos are usually the least of the work. Mr. Banier writes on his photos. Now when I say he writes, I mean he covers his prints with lines and lines, and lines of swirling text. I am reminded of the scenes from the movie "A Beautiful Mind" where the schizophrenic math genius John Nash is shown to have covered every inch of his garage with obsessive, psychotic text. There is something obsessive and perhaps mentally unbalanced about Mr. Banier's photos. They are each one-of-a-kind works that display a kind of verborrhea one rarely encounters in stable minds. The viewer is assaulted by words covering, in some cases, every available space of the photograph.

I struggled to find my way with these photos. I am, as I said, attracted to art work that combines text with image. I also like work that has an obsessive nature. But my initial reaction was to be a little put off by the photos. Perhaps it was because many of them are in French and my francophone skills weren't up to the translation. Still, I wondered whether these words were meant to be read in their entirety. It would be a huge task to read an entire Banier photo. Even the ones in English were hard to decipher and had a rambling, stream-of-consciousness quality. Then I started to look at them as a graphical device. Now, a new door was opening for me. The text took on a visual rhythm that, in it's best examples, was synergistic with the image. The photo itself was maybe not so engaging, and the text by itself was not so engaging, but together they had undeniable power. Favorites of mine are a massive photo of a park bench at the edge of a lawn called "Jardin du Luxembourg" (2005), and a portrait of Vladimir Horowitz that is one of the artist's first written photos.

It has been said that great art asks questions. If that's true, then this is great art. It is impossible to see this work and remain neutral. It fills your eyes and brain with questions and a desire to see and learn more about the work. Check it out and let me know what you think. His website is I would love to start a discussion of his work.


  1. I can understand and empathize with how puzzled you sound in front of Banier's work. My own take and comment on it is that the emperor is truly naked and it is probably time to open our eyes, to "passer nos yeux aux papier de verre" [sorry for your Francophone skills] as one Magnum photographer used to say.
    There is nothing mesmerizing, if not artistic in Banier's photographs or paintings. Both are overtly overrated and sham. It is more about whom Banier knows than the intrinsic qualities of the work. Exposure and social relations do not guarantee quality and albeit art, on the contrary in this case. And the case is pretty pathetic.

  2. Bruno--

    Thank you for your comments. I certainly see the possibility that Banier is a celebrity who knows celebrities, and that this is how he has gained some recognition as an artist. There is no shortage of mediocre art to see that only has that as a CV. I also would not defend Banier as one of the great or supremely original artists of all time. Still, I believe there is room below the top for other work, and also that parts of work may be interesting even if the whole is not wholly satisfying. While I continue to find Banier's opus unsatisfying, I still believe that there is enough there to be worth looking at and to be worth discussing among those who are passionate about photography.

    So, in my view, I would say the emperor isn't naked, but might just have on socks and underwear. Of course, I completely respect your position to reject his work entirely. I can see how one would find one's way to that place. But I feel that, as with much of the art in the world, the discussion of it is often more fruitful and satisfying than the art itself. My blog post was meant to spur just that can of dialogue.

  3. I am and have been for many years a rebel with a cause. I am an artist, my great grandmother build the Oppenheim Villa. I am an Ulrich, grandaugher of Charles Frederick Ulrich. What I rebel about is that as an artist you are supposed to paint the same subjects over and over and over....Critics and Galleries and Museums, and all the ones that govern the artworld. You will not be accepted if you are great at Portraits, Seascapes, Still Lifes and... more subjects at the same time. (How boring would life be.)This is because our critics, and so called art experts want to be able to identify right away the artist and say Yes, this is a ...... and sound like pompous experts. Jeannette Ulrich

  4. Ms Ulrich--

    Thank you for your comment. I agree that it's much more difficult to build a career in the art world without a definable style. Still, I believe many artists do actually come to a personal style honestly and sincerely, and not for the benefit of pompous art critics. It has been my experience that it is not actually that simple to create a personal and recognizable style, especially as a photographer. That does not mean that all recognizable artists create great art, it just states that all art is difficult to create, even down to the creation of a style. If the art is communicative and speaks to the inner voice of a large group of people, it will find its audience no matter what the style.