Critics’ Picks

View of  “L’Âme Primitive,” 2021.

View of “L’Âme Primitive,” 2021.


L'Âme Primitive

Musée Zadkine
100 bis, rue d'Assas
September 29, 2021–February 27, 2022

Located in the former home and studio of the Russian-born sculptor Ossip Zadkine (1890-1967) near the Jardin du Luxembourg, this quiet haven with its sculpture-filled garden hosts several special exhibitions a year. “L’Âme Primitive” (The Primitive Soul), curated by Jeanne Brun and Claire Le Restif, is an exquisitely modulated presentation of works by thirty artists ranging from Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) to Morgan Courtois and Corentin Canesson (both born in 1988). Given the domestic scale of the gallery spaces, the profusion of works could have been bewildering, were it not for the exhibition’s many resonant juxtapositions and an organizing principle that gathers the art around three themes: Reverse Perspective, The Body, and The Dwelling.

The first of these is borrowed from the Russian philosopher-theologian Pavel Florensky, whose 1919 text on Russian icons and Byzantine art offered his modernist peers an alternative to the legacy of Renaissance painting. This invocation of a “primitivist turn,” drawing primarily on folk, popular, medieval and “archaic” art, allows for a skirting of questions of expropriative colonialism that understandably dominate current discussions of primitivism in modern European art. The second theme proposes a connection between a liberation from academic representations of the body and diverse forms of sexual emancipation in the figurative works of artists from Rodin and Zadkine to Miriam Cahn and Louis Fratino. The third thematic cluster takes its cue from its location in Zadkine's garden-studio retreat as well as from one of the works included, Étienne-Martin's two-meter tall sculpture in roughly-hewn oak Tour des ombres (Tower of Shadows), 1969. Given the show’s deft balance between modern and contemporary art, it is worth noting that the most compelling selection of works are from an artist born in 1926 who died just recently, the great Marisa Merz. A golden drawing of a face, untitled and undated, graces the exhibition catalogue, while one of her gorgeously austere sculpted heads occupied a well-appointed alcove, enigmatically inclining toward Zadkine’s secluded garden.