“Contre-cultures 1969–1989, l’esprit français”

La Maison Rouge
10, Boulevard de la Bastille
February 24, 2017–May 21, 2017

View of “Contre-cultures 1969–1989, l’esprit français” (Countercultures 1969–1989, the French Spirit), 2017.

Countering the French national motto of “liberté, egalité, fraternité,” this searing archive of nearly seven hundred works posits that freedom in France is not at all a given but rather some holy illusion looming in the distance, a “hypothesis whose boundaries need to be pushed at all times,” according to curators Guillaume Désanges and François Piron. Enter counterculture’s vibrant expressions of civil unrest. See Michel Journiac’s gleaming white Formica guillotine, Piège pour une exécution capitale (Trap for capital execution), 1979, installed amid posters decrying police brutality in the banlieues, or pages from the notebooks of filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Marxist Dziga Vertov Group. Themes of sexual liberation loom large: Feminist and pro-queer political cartoons appear alongside the face of Marie-France, transgender Parisian pop star and muse to photographers Pierre et Gilles.

The timeline begins in the disappointed wake of the 1968 revolution, and stretches forward to economic crises of the 1970s and 1980s, yet the direness of these times is softened by the works’ comic delivery. Where the French may lack liberty, they are fully entitled to their heritage of caustic reflexive satire, a civic duty dating back to the Marquis de Sade. The show, in fact, features Roland Topor and Henri Xhonneux’s 1989 film Marquis, an homage to the father of sadism, which was released on France’s bicentennial. In it, the marquis has both a dog’s head and a philosophy-talking penis named Colin.

Topor was a regular contributor to Hara-Kiri, a parodic magazine shown here with one issue’s cover proclaiming the Virgin Mary a “tranny” (“Prove it,” she says through the shaving cream on her face). For its irreverence, Hara-Kiri was shut down three times before relaunching as Charlie Hebdo, the world’s most notorious alternative weekly. No attempts to kill l’esprit français have yet succeeded.

Janelle Zara