Rachel Cohen

Vidura Jang Bahadur Two Photographs Outside

Vidura Jang Bahadur Two Photographs Outside

Photograph and installation, Vidura Jang Bahadur, 2017, E. Garfield Street, Chicago. Under the painted portrait, signature, Devíons. Documentation photograph, Rachel Cohen.

On Friday I wrote about a show of works by photographer Vidura Jang Bahadur that has stayed with me. It was up in the spring of 2017 at the Muffler Shop at 359 E. Garfield in a University of Chicago-owned space here on the South Side. When I looked at the show, I began with the works that had been displayed in the interior space first, and my Friday entry concentrated mostly on those. Two works mounted outside were especially interesting, and I wanted to return to them today.

The Muffler Shop sits in a paved parking area with some green overgrown grasses around it. This is a photo I took of the Muffler Shop that day.

Past the grasses, there is a fence that connects to the next building, which is a set of storefronts in front of which there is a bus stop. When I was looking, there were a couple of people coming and going; one, I’m pretty sure, sitting at the bus stop. This photograph was on the side of the building, so you could see it as you left the Muffler Shop.

Looking at my images of the Bahadur installation over the last week, I’ve been struck by both the message painted within the photograph and the effect of it on this wall. It’s a photograph of a wall near a driveway or alley, very like the wall on which it is mounted. This close doubling makes you pay attention. It's also a photograph of a painted sentence, a photograph of a painting. Someone had spray-painted the stenciled letters “IF YOU WANT THE STORE TO OPEN STOP THE VIOLENCE.” Then the word, in a more italicized font, CONTACT, and a phone number.

Who is the “you” in the sentence? It seems directed at the immediate neighborhood, the people who might pass the wall, but the stenciled letters, the way there seems to be a slight rise in the “YOU” and a space, something odd about the “W” that begins “WANT” to my eye and ear makes a slight disjuncture and into this space floods the possibility of other you’s, the local government officials, the lax gun laws, the prison complex, the people who shuttered the neighborhood schools. It seems to me also about history, the history of redlining in the neighborhood, the history of voracious demand: labor, buy. Not only immediate sharp violence, but slow violence.

Today, a few of the main stories in the news are: coronavirus in the White House, the question of economic reopening, and the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. In this context, the message on the wall – If you want the store to open, stop the violence – seems a more profound analysis. The extreme callousness of the people in our nation’s first, and very white, storefront, the instrumental view of violence and suffering, just a part of the policy arsenal, the idea that you can force a healthy economy by coercing impoverished people into dangerous workplaces, and the delusion that this unnecessary squandering of peoples’ lives is not then a part of your own house, all of our houses – I find all this in the photograph today.

I’m also interested in the material. The desaturated concrete wall in the photograph next to the bricks and mortar on the wall. I see both with real consciousness of the material of which an ordinary day is made.

And even a photograph like this one that I took, which might seem like a formal study – painted wall, photographed, made into photograph on wall, itself photographed – seems less like a set of formal boxes, and more like a question of matter – the little tear in the paper that has been wheat pasted to the wall, the bends in the wire on the fence beneath.


Second photograph. On the glass window of the storefront, the green poster for the exhibition of work by MFA students from the University of Chicago in which Vidura Jang Bahadur’s work appeared. [I came to know Vidura Jang Bahadur because both of us came to work at the University of Chicago around the same time – he from many years photographing in India, China, and Tibet, me from New York and Cambridge.] The show was called “and…and…and.” Next to the green poster was Bahadur's photograph, which has, in the years since, become the one from the show that is most important to me. And on the other side of the door, there was a painting on the wall, which looked spray-painted, of a woman, smiling, her upper body. This was signed Devíons.

I suppose there might be different ideas about the way the art is joined together here, and, and, and, but to me it seemed like an attempt to acknowledge that the space being used by the University of Chicago was a part of neighborhood artistic life, already ongoing, that the new additions might intrude, and might also offer, you could decide.

The photograph was taken on the sidelines of the Bud Billiken Parade in 2016. There are the kind of open tents that get set up for selling things, for food. There is a man holding a framed print of a historical painting, which I imagined he might have made or purchased (though I later learned that he intended to sell it). It is a painting of four leaders – Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. They are in a graceful, illuminated, classical space, seated at a table, drinking coffee or tea together, behind them arches, vines, and a statue that looks like it is a classical sculpture of a woman. It is a history painting, and, as all history paintings are, it is an argument about future understanding. Next to the photograph is a young woman who seems to me clearly aware that she is being photographed.

By looking at my own detail photographs of the Bahadur photograph, I become aware of things I didn’t see originally. I had the impression that the man holding the painting was obscured from the waist up, but I see that you can see the top of his head, even down to the eyebrows, and three fingers of his hand underneath the painting, and that these aspects of his presence give him a bit more agency. I feel more clearly that he wanted his painting photographed. And, behind the young men who are gesturing in the foreground, I see another man facing the camera, in a black shirt, and with a hat with a black band on it, and his looking at the photographer also adds to my sense that all these people made this picture together.


Both photographs, to me today, are about photographing history painting. The photographer who has mounted these photographs on this wall and in this window is thinking about the way people are making culture as they go. Both are about what can be there to see if you look closely, with what gets called “the big picture” in the back of your mind. Both are about granular matter – spraypaint, mortar, wheat paste, pigment, denim, polyester, visor, paper, canvas, straw, concrete.

Vidura Jang Bahadur On Photography

Jang Bahadur

Photograph, Vidura Jang Bahadur, 2016. Installation at the Muffler Shop, Chicago, 2017. Detail photos Rachel Cohen.

In the spring of 2017, Vidura Jang Bahadur installed a series of photographs he had taken at the Muffler Shop at 359 E. Garfield Blvd near Washington Park on the South Side. The building is owned by the University of Chicago and is a part of its art initiatives. Bahadur’s photographs were street photographs – of people at the lake shore and in the parks on the south side, of storefronts and prairie grasses, some portraits of an individual or a small group, some larger crowd gatherings.

In the photographs there was stillness and composure, and I also felt the photographs raised the issue of arbitrariness, how these people came to be in this place. The images are de-saturated, which gives a sense of incompleteness. The photographs had mostly been taken in 2016 and were untitled.

This is a different detail of the same photograph:

Bahadur is interested in urban planning, and in the catalogue for the show, he wrote of how the city of Chicago has been “carved” into “distinct racial geographies,” by policy, through the built environment. The show was a part of the Department of Visual Arts MFA presentations for the year, and in the space there were also works by another artist, Kyle Hossli; I did not take any photographs of Hossli's work. The ensemble of works for the spring was called “And…and…and,” the group of works by Bahadur did not have a specific title.

The spring of 2017 was my first spring in Chicago, and the end of Vidura Jang Bahadur’s second year in the city, and in the MFA program. Before Chicago, Bahadur had worked as a photographer for many years in India, China, and Tibet, and had particular interests in photographing people who had migrated or been forced to migrate. At the University of Chicago, he had enrolled in the first course I taught there, on the essay and moving through landscape. In the years since, he and I have collaborated on several projects – working together to edit and design a community anthology and a set of chapbooks, both are of writing and images by other people having to do with migration. He also recently took the photograph I use as my author photo. At the time I saw the show, though, we knew each other less well. It is also the only show of his work that I have seen.


Bahadur has not shown these photographs in commercial galleries, and it was important to him to install the show in a way that recognized that the images were of the neighborhood, taken of the neighborhood and in some way belonging in and to the neighborhood. Some were also installed outside the Muffler Shop building on a nearby wall and storefront.

He printed the images on regular bond paper and pasted them to the walls of the Muffler Shop using wall adhesive and to the nearby exterior spaces using wheat paste. When the show was over, he washed the interior walls down, the photographs disintegrated and the images receded into the digital archive; some vestiges of the exterior images remained until last year. I went to the show close to the end of its time, and was very aware of how transitory the images were, that they were soon to be washed away.

It made me see more acutely how much I assume, and invest in, the permanence of photographs. I take them to be a record that will outlast me, and to be in some way both immaterial and valuable, almost as if the point of the living were to achieve itself in the image. This show made them material — wrinkled and faded and pasted and less the point. This man on the horse did not achieve his meaning in being photographed (though he knows how to pose for a photograph) – he had his meaning, and has it still, somewhere else, when this photograph is washed away.

One thing that is striking to me now, going back through the photographs, is how much the show affected my own photographs of the show. I began to veer to the sides, taking pictures of the pictures with the sockets and bricks that were near to them. My photographs of the Vidura Jang Bahadur photographs look a bit like Vidura Jang Bahadur photographs. This seems a complex wit on the part of the artist, to have created this effect, or the opportunity for this effect.

When I saw the show, I began from the inside of the space, and the images I have concentrated on were mostly mounted in the interior. Vidura Jang Bahadur was there on the day I saw the show, and he told me that he later thought he would have liked to install more of the images outside. I also spent quite a bit of time with the outside images and I found them, and their installation, trustworthy and clarifying. When I write on Monday, I would like to try to think about why.

Unsteady Hands

Unsteady Hands

Hervé Guibert, detail of photograph.

The prose fragment is a form capable of kindness.  After I thought of that sentence, I thought of reading Hervé Guibert again, with students, this quarter.  In his use, the fragment has so much discretion all along its edges.  We all exist beyond those edges.  It’s like sending a note when a call might be intrusive, or stepping aside the right degree, to make way but not to shun.

It’s not that his writing is especially interested in kindness, but, in writing and photography, he is interested in recognition, both the kind you can accomplish steadily, and the kind where you flinch away.  This is a Guibert self-portrait, from 1981.

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Yesterday I was thinking about Degas.  And wondering about his hands when, late in life, he could barely see.  I remember reading in a wall text at the Metropolitan Museum that one of his friends helped him to feel a painting he was curious about.  What I wondered yesterday was how the paint felt to his fingers, if his hands felt steady to him.  I think of steadiness of hand and steadiness of gaze going together.  The fact that my hands feel unsteady to me lately seems related to how much I flinch away, from what I am reading, even from watching peoples’ faces.  In every news article, in the faces of people crossing the street, I seem to see great vulnerability, that we are menaced.

Here is an essay by Guibert I didn’t know about.  It is a photograph, the joint effort of the subject and the photographer to understand, among other things, Degas.  Some day, I hope I will write about the way the picture reflects on Degas’ ideas about the brave efforts of our bodies, about drawing and sculpture and form.  But my hands are a little unsteady today.

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Delacroix's Palette

Delacroix039s Palette

The Palette of Delacroix, from the Musée Delacroix

The final studio in which Delacroix worked is also, spatially, the last in a series of seclusions.  It’s a wonderful large square, lit by immense skylights, and surrounded by gardens that Delacroix filled with a profusion of flowers, their colors of his own careful choosing.  The studio building is behind, and separate from, the apartment in which Delacroix lived. This apartment is itself on a private courtyard holding quiet entrances for a few buildings.  The courtyard is off a small quiet square, really a slight geometric expansion of a narrow street, the Rue Furstenberg, an untrafficked byway not far from the great church of St. Germain des Pres.
          The studio was recommended to Delacroix by the restorer and color merchant Etienne Haro, who knew that the artist, unwell in his later years, needed to be within walking distance of St.-Sulpice, where he had undertaken a last sequence of great murals.
          When he was young, Delacroix once said to his friend Charles Baudelaire, he could only work if he knew he had somewhere to be that evening, a ball, music, but as he grew older, the discipline of work grew in him and he worked indefatigably.  He had visitors, but not so very many, and he kept his last illness private.  Even a good friend like Baudelaire was shocked by the news of his death and wrote sorrowfully of how they would no longer find him in that grand square space "where reigned, in spite of our rigid climate, an equatorial temperature."1  

*  *  *

A study in hot and cold, Delacroix as a personality and an artist was in continual motion between shade and gleam.  He was revered for his color sense, both daring and precise, and the palettes now on display at the Musée Delacroix make his color sense dramatically visible.    

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          Here you can see, unusually, not a rainbow or color wheel, but hot colors intermingled with cold ones, and dark contrasts grouped together with corresponding brights.  The artist mixed his shades in advance and kept careful notes of each one’s composition.  In Les Palettes de Delacroix (1930), Léon Piot noted that when Delacroix was ill, he would have his palette brought to his bed and spend the day there mixing colors.  Baudelaire wrote, “I have never seen a palette as minutely and delicately prepared as that of Delacroix.  It resembled a bouquet of flowers, knowingly arranged.”2   On its website, the Musée Delacroix points out that as time went on the artist, “fragmented more and more the tones, focusing less and less on real color as opposed to shadows, halftones, and reflections.”  
          Baudelaire evidently felt sympathetic to, and recognized by, the atmosphere created by Delacroix’s color.  “It seems that such color thinks for itself, independently of the object it clothes,” Baudelaire is said to have said, “The effect of the whole is almost musical.”3

*  *  *

This palette

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was said to have been given by Delacroix to Henri Fatin-Latour, a great admirer of Delacroix.  Fatin-Latour, angered by the lack of official commemoration of the master’s death, painted an Hommage à Delacroix.

The group portrait includes Fatin-Latour himself (in white blouse), James McNeill Whistler (standing center,) Edouard Manet (standing immediately to the right of the portrait of Delacroix) and Baudelaire (seated right corner.)  

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Six years later, Fatin-Latour painted a similar group portrait, called A Studio at Batignolles that, with its depictions of Manet, Renoir, Zola, Bazille, and Monet, stands as both manifesto for and document of the Impressionist movement in something like the manner of John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence:

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          The palette that may have belonged to both Delacroix and Fatin-Latour was eventually donated to the Musée Delacroix by the granddaughter of Léon Riesener, and the Riesener family, through its friendship with the Morisot sisters, provided another, personal, conduit by which the palette of Delacroix was transmitted to the Impressionists.

*  *  *

This summer, the Musée Delacroix has an exhibition of works that show the influence of Shakespeare on Delacroix.  Like Berlioz, Delacroix was greatly moved by the force of drama in the works of Shakespeare and there are wonderful etchings of instants of great intensity from Hamlet (Hamlet on the terrace approached by his father’s ghost, the moment before the stabbing of Polonius, the moment “up, sword” of deciding not to kill Claudius at prayer).  There is also an oil sketch of Léon Riesener, a cousin and confidante of the painter, himself a painter, and a legatee of Delacroix’s.

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          This portrait shows a broad and sympathetic face, tones all of brown and white.  In the background and upside down are discernible sketches for another picture, Hamlet and Horatio in the cemetery with the skull of Yorick.

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Bequeathal, and legacy were vexed issues for Delacroix, who, says Baudelaire, was increasingly preoccupied with which of his contributions would endure.
          Walter Benjamin notes the aptness of Léon Daudet’s phrase for Baudelaire.  Daudet writes that Baudelaire had a “trap-door disposition, which is also that of Prince Hamlet.”4  I take this to mean a theatrical, or a magician’s, feeling for circumstances and their manipulation.  Appearances and disappearances, sudden dispersals, going within to get out.  There seems to be something of Delacroix in the phrase, too.

*  *  *

Another inheritor of Delacroix was Berthe Morisot, who, in an early summer of her training as a painter was working side-by-side with her sister in the town of Beuzeval in Normandy. Their father had rented for them a mill belonging to Léon Riesener, and the Morisot sisters were soon close to, and much encouraged by, the whole Riesener family. In her notebook, Berthe Morisot recorded an anecdote they related: “Delacroix composed his palette with such precision that he could have it prepared each morning by Jenny, his maid, while he was painting his Apollo ceiling or rather while he had Andrieux paint it as he remained below.  One day, he called out to him to use a No. 2 pink and Andrieux thought he would catch him out with a No. 3. ‘No, no, exclaimed Delacroix, I said a No.2.’ That is absolutely the sensation of a musician.”5

*  *  *

I see two ways out of this series of reflections: one is to try to see further inside the man, the other to try to see further into the legacy of his works.  These efforts do not amount to the same thing, but perhaps could be displayed immediately next to each other.
          Walter Benjamin, whose interest in Delacroix grew in part from Benjamin’s profound relationship to the works of Baudelaire, notes that Delacroix was interested in photography, and that his paintings “escape the competition with photography, not only because of the impact of their colors, but also (in those days there was no instant photography) because of the stormy agitation of their subject matter. And so a benevolent interest in photography was possible for him.”6  The ever more profound and fragmentary sense of color, and the idea of creating motion through the juxtaposition of contrasting colors, these went on being a significant part of how painting responded to photography through the rest of the 19th century.
          Baudelaire said that his friend Delacroix was a peculiar combination of the “sauvage,” and the “homme du monde.”  He was, writes the poet, “passionately enamored of passion, and coldly determined to seek out the means of expressing passion in the most visible manner.”7  In his austere seclusion he would, Baudelaire wrote, find the colors in which to bathe his scenes so that they had their own life.  “As a dream is placed in the colored atmosphere proper to it, so a conception, become a composition, must moves in a colored milieu particular to it.”8  

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Hamlet and Horatio in the Cemetery, Musée du Louvre

1 Baudelaire, Critque d’art, “Eugene Delacroix, son oeuvre et sa vie,” p421, translations mine.
2 Baudelaire, Critique d’art, p408
3 from Ernest Seillière, Baudelaire, (Paris, 1931) cited in Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, edited Tiedemann, translated Eiland and McLaughlin, (Cambridge, 1999) p277.
4 Daudet, Les Pélerins d’Emmaus, Paris, 1928, p101, cited in Benjamin, Arcades Project, p265.
5 Morisot, Notebook, 1885, 1887-8, p12-13, cited in Marianne Delafond and Caroline Genet-Bondeville, Berthe Morisot or Reasoned Audacity, Paris, 2011, p16
6 Benjamin, Arcades Project, p678.
7 Baudelaire, Critique d’art, p418, p406.
8 Baudelaire, p408.

On Photography I

On Photography I

Pissarro, A Cowherd at Valhermeil, 1874, iphone.

After years of scorning people who come to museums and take pictures – souvenir-hunters! they don’t even look at the paintings! – on Tuesday I found myself in the Impressionist rooms at the Met zealously photographing details with my iphone held up in front of the canvases.  I had two impulses, or justifications: it seemed expedient – I was in New York for a day only, had a mere hour with the pictures – this was a way to take notes.  And at the same time, or even before the thought of expediency occurred to me, I also knew that having details of paintings is very helpful if you are going to post about them.  Already the fact of keeping this notebook is changing the way I go to museums.

The second picture I took showed me that the modest magnification of the iphone makes an enormous difference in what you can see.  I started with some little Boudin figures at the beach:

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I have always felt that if you wait long enough and give yourself patiently to the act of looking your eye will learn to see at this level of detail.  But here, presto, the machine could do it instantly – and then looking at the painting with the naked eye I could see it all myself, trained, in a second, by the clarification of the machine.

As I went on, taking pictures of Constables and Daubignys, and made my way to the Pissarro room, I began to experience some of the pitfalls of the new method.  The iphone camera overclarifies.  It sharpens contrasts, defines edges where the paint is deliberately ambiguous.  So that I was in fact learning to see a painting that wasn’t the painting I was looking at.  I had to try to compensate in the other direction, photographing so quickly that the camera had not yet quite had time to resolve the image, and this seemed to more clearly approximate the paint as it was actually there.

Still, the exciting thing was that I could actually keep track of the sequence of my observations.  For example, I saw this beautiful Pissarro from 1874, the year of the first great Impressionist exhibition, painted at Pontoise, one of Pissarro’s favorite places to paint.

I saw the picture whole:

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Then my eye went to this passage of paint in the foreground:

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Then to the cowherd of the picture’s title:

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A cart further along:

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Paint to right foreground, the yellow, blues and lavendars:

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Stretch of cultivated field down to earth:

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[ Technology suggests and constrains.  I find I am limited in the number of images I can post.  Just at this moment of drama, when we are about to see further into the picture, I will have to ask my reader to wait.  The rest of the sequence will be found under Pissarro, On Photography II ]

Feeling the Air, I

Feeling the Air I

Sargent, Santa Maria della Salute, 1904

I’ve had a few conversations recently with people who are not that interested in painting. They say, reasonably, that in museums they are overwhelmed by the profusion, or that only really contemporary painting is strange enough to compel their attention, or that in front of paintings long and loudly admired their eyes feel veiled by expectations and history.  

It feels odd to say in the face of these large and genuine concerns that when I am at a museum I am often merely after a small, fine sensation.  The movement of light and air.  That’s all.  I know this feeling is of a family of quite ordinary feelings – on a good day one may have something like it walking to the grocery store.  But, though common in life, it is rare in art.  In very great literature, “But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?” But not, for example, in photography.  It might be almost a definition of what distinguishes painting from photography that one does not feel the movement of the air in looking at photographs.  Even in front of Ansel Adams, what one feels is majesty, not air.  But in front of a painting the movement of light and air have held someone else’s attention in a way that lets me feel it and at the same time know myself to be feeling it.

The presence of the Sargent watercolors in Boston this season has focused my attention on how it is that painters offer this sensation to us.  Why, looking at Sargent’s quick-stroked boats along the edge of a Venetian canal do I suddenly feel the soft air?

My guess is that this sensation is one of the aspects of seeing paintings in person that cannot be rendered in iphone details, but I’m going to try to illustrate what seem to me to be two sides of the answer.

It seems first of all to have to do with things jostling and overlapping. The two gondolas to the right here are at rest, but must be bumping each other.  The figures standing on the stone are, in action, distinct but are shown overlapped by the long greenish boom of a boat, and the figures themselves and their shadows bleed into one another.

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Boats, water, Venice, all ideal for this because it is not in any of their natures to be still.

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We know the light reflected on the underside of the bridge to be dancing, as are the waves given in motion below.  Jostling, overlapping, playing over, this gives the sense of motion, permeability, change, within the picture.

On the other side, the angle and motion of the viewer are also significant.  Look at these two shots, almost identical of Portuguese Boats.  I think that the sense of motion comes across better in the photo to the left, taken at a slightly stronger angle, then in the flatter front-on one to the right, in any case, shifting rapidly between the two may give something of the sensation.

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The shift makes a small suggestion of how one sees the picture as one is oneself in motion.  Of course when you see a painting in person you cannot help but move in front of it, if only to walk up to it.  The spatial experience of a photograph changes much less as you move around in relation to it.  I suppose because of the fixed position of the camera.  The painter is constantly moving around in relation to her canvas and constantly changing the perspective.  It must be the sense that space is changing around you that you have when you walk to the grocery store.