PRINT April 1995


Lauren Sedofsky talks with Jean Clair

WITH ITS 1995 CENTENNIAL celebration, the Venice Biennale is executing an about-face. Putting on hold its traditional failed attempts to encompass the ultranow of international artistic production, the Biennale will instead be appraising the closing century. Vieillesse oblige. That the final accounting should repose on figures of the human kind, a body and face show, comes as no surprise. What may startle or rile, confound or intrigue, as a Biennale must, is the rereading of history that the newly inflated corpus invites. For in choosing Jean Clair to determine how modernity adds up, the Biennale is ratifying a particular curatorial approach, as well as a set of values, a position, an identity, at the critical moment of European unification.

Clair has been responsible for some heavy-duty exhibitions over the last twenty years. As a curator at the Centre Georges Pompidou, he set his standards for abundance and “scientifico-ideological bearings” with the Centre’s inaugural Marcel Duchamp retrospective in 1977. Tossing off a 1978 show of Étienne Jules Marey’s chronophotography, Clair further defined his orientation with “Réalismes entre Révolution et Réaction: 1919–1939,” 1980, an underscoring of figurative currents stemming from the Italy and Germany of the period. When Moscow/Berlin/Paris/New York were the Centre’s cardinal exhibition coordinates, Clair inserted Vienna, an ideal point at which to pivot from “a triumphant, heroic avant-garde modernity toward a critical, desperate, lucid one.” To this day he harbors a grudge against New York’s Museum of Modern Art for having imported an “asepticized, estheticized” version of his “Vienna, 1890–1938” show in 1986: “Without the body, the blood, the brawls, Marxism, social struggles, the Jewish conflict, why Vienna?” Indeed, Clair’s show was geared to the zeitgeist. Teeming with local deities, resolutely interdisciplinary, it was meant to demonstrate that the avant-garde was merely a sliver, if that, of a modern tradition that could balance “innovation and recapitulation” and “continue the classical culture of the individual.”

Once settled into the directorship of the Musée Picasso, Clair launched “L’Âme au Corps” (The soul to/in/with the body), the 1993 Grand Palais blockbuster. Together with neurobiologist Jean-Pierre Changeux, he deployed representations of the body from the Enlightenment through the 19th century in intersection with the evolving sciences of the brain: neurology and psychiatry. This is the imposing backdrop for what will be seen in Venice. Add to it Clair’s assiduous prospecting among fringe figures (a Balthus retrospective in 1982, a first French glimpse of Lucian Freud in 1986), books on Duchamp, Klimt and Picasso, Delvaux, Bonnard, Cartier-Bresson, and the Medusa, and you have a man coherent in his contradictions: a materialist, committed to the concrete, the sensuous, the carnal, whose underlying assumptions are metaphysical. A realist, acutely aware of cultural mutations of the scientific, social, or political variety, whose convictions lie with perennial values. A Modernist, steeped in the art of this century, whose credo derides the avant-garde and eschews abstraction. His priorities are unequivocal: the individual and his or her interiority, the body and its integrity, art history ensconced in a Geistesgeschichte. In short, Clair represents the sounding of humanism’s postlude after the closure of humanism. In standing his ground, he has anticipated the art community’s tergiversations: postlude could well turn prelude for the new Europe.


LAUREN SEDOFSKY: Is there any particular significance in the Biennale’s naming a French director to the visual-art section?

JEAN CLAIR: I don’t want to see any. Politically, the Biennale needed to open up to Europe in order to escape the ivory-tower attitudes and local squabbles that have led to its recent disasters. They’ve named a foreigner hoping he won’t be too quickly engulfed by the lagoon climate.

LS: Will your centennial show be just another of the Biennale’s usual central exhibitions?

JC: Since the centennial requires a retrospective glance, it provides a kind of moratorium. We’ve lived a hundred years of modernity, concretized in part by the Biennale; now let’s look back and see if it has a meaning. Anyone would be tempted by the challenge.

I’m not doing a show of the Biennale’s history, though, because it isn’t interesting. For twenty years it was an academic salon, against which the Italian avant-garde defined itself; then came Italian fascism. After the war, the Biennale discovered the School of Paris, just as the Americans were declaring it never happened. The Biennale has always had an odd slant on what was going on. Yet it’s endured.

LS: What changes are you introducing?

JC: We’re closing the “Aperto” section. For me, the first two “Aperto” shows were thrilling, the last two catastrophic. The new at any price, neophilia, the young artist holding the key to the future—it comes down to an ideology, and it isn’t mine.

LS: By situating the exhibition “far from the fashions of the last ten years,” you’re changing the Biennale’s definition as a showcase of new work.

JC: I’m taking into consideration a number of questions raised over the last decade about the Modern, the avant-garde, and the ideology of progress. But what is the new in art? What’s the characteristic of the new?

LS: Compare Venice with New York’s Whitney Biennial, where the choices tend to generate a certain excitement, even if it quickly turns critical.

JC: For whom is it exciting?

LS: The art world.

JC: That’s not interesting.

LS: Who is the Biennale’s public?

JC: I have no idea. In the beginning it was an enormous popular fair, with 200,000 to 500,000 visitors. Today it draws a small milieu of the self-important. It makes you want to find the Biennale as it once was.

LS: An Exposition Universelle.

JC: Exactly.

LS: Your “Identity and Alterity” show will gather some 400 artists in eight historical chapters exploring artistic representations of the body and especially of the human face as they intersect with scientific representations. How does this work?

JC: Modern man’s identity is defined in the late 19th century with Broca’s anthropology, Bertillon’s anthropometry, Cesare Lombroso, advances in photography, the X ray in 1895 (the year of the first Biennale), all opening the period of the body. The body’s identity is clearly circumscribed, specified, calculated, coded, filtered through a series of scientific procedures. When you try to show the parallel between the history of forms and the history of anthropology and biology, you find extraordinarily rich visual material from the last century, and specific points of convergence—Paul Richer’s sculpture of a woman with Parkinson’s disease, for example, which influenced Rodin and Camille Claudel. X rays affected the way artists conceived of the visible: Duchamp’s nonretinal art, for example.

As you advance into the contemporary period, toward DNA and the gene, you enter the domain of the invisible and the abstract. It becomes hard to find objects that visualize scientific knowledge of the body, and art seems detached from representation. Artistic efforts to return to the body are perceived as reactionary or regressive. Eventually, though, you find a visually spectacular return to the body in the dialogue between art and science in computer imaging.

LS: Anthropometry, X rays, ethnology, Charcot and psychiatry, eugenics, DNA, then computer imaging, the genome, and the mapping of the brain: is the thread the exact sciences or what the French call the “human sciences ”?

JC: The exact sciences.

LS: You astonish me.

JC: [laughs] The confusion is real. The thread is really biology as an exact science, which is imposing itself today as the area of real break-throughs. In my view, biology was fed by Broca ’s anthropology and anthropometry.

LS: Isn’t the thread really eugenics and other ideologically inspired deviations from biological speculation? There’s a chasm, after all, between the physical typologies of Broca, Quetelet, or Lombroso and, say, Louis Pasteur or Claude Bernard—perhaps because the latter two had already taken a giant step into the invisible.

JC: When an American scientist claims that homosexuality results from a gene inscribed in an individual’s genome, his procedure, however refined, isn’t any different from Lombroso’s a century ago, when he claimed that by measuring an individual’s features you could determine whether he was a criminal. It’s the marking of an individual in the material support. The notion of identity that develops in the 20th century is important for approaching the relation between modernity and totalitarian regimes. What is the relation between the fantasy of a pure body and ideas of monstrosity or degeneracy?

LS: The show culminates with video installations (Bill Viola and Gary Hill, for example) and computer imaging of the body. What’s the relation between anthropometry and video images, which merely translate a form for the cathodic screen?

JC: The way computer imaging can manipulate faces to make visual clones, make them enter situations in which they never existed, clearly resembles the procedures Bertillon used a century ago—the classification of expressions, postures, the passions.

LS: A certain type of figurative art, often perceived as regressive, constitutes a significant part of the exhibition.

JC: I enjoy rewriting history so that characters currently considered marginal play a role. I’m part of a generation that fell under the tyranny of formalism: content or meaning didn’t exist any longer. I took those twenty years of formalist terrorism badly, since it was contrary to my training as a philosopher and art historian, a training oriented toward Merleau-Ponty, phenomenology, and, to a degree, Lacan. Now the fashion has come around to me. But why is it that an exhibition of Modern sculpture at Beaubourg ignores a whole school of sculpture—the school of Wilhelm Lehmbruck, one of the greatest sculptors, and of Arturo Martini, Cesar, Arman? Where do you put Jean Fautrier, Balthus, Georg Baselitz? Someone like Lucian Freud is not an aberration but belongs to a history of forms that’s yet to be written. I’m also bringing back Stanley Spencer and D. H. Lawrence, as well as Lovis Corinth—totally forgotten but important now for many young painters.

LS: How are you going to handle fiercely anti-anthropomorphic art?

JC: I hope to pose the question of what I call the “iconoclastic phase” of the 1950s—the rejection of the image, incarnation, the body. No period has been as obsessed with the body as the 20th century. Abstraction is the parenthesis.

LS: You’re grouping the white Robert Rauschenbergs of 1951 with Agnes Martin, via Robert Ryman and Robert Mangold?

JC: That’s the exhibition’s other main line: there’s the image and then there’s the icon.

LS: The same “icon” we find earlier in the show with Kasimir Malevich, Alexei von Jawlensky, and Wassily Kandinsky?

JC: Does that seem strange? Take the critical cases of artists who develop through the most dogmatic abstraction, then return to the face. Jackson Pollock’s abstractions are invested with his gestures, his muscles-they are the body. But he returns to the face in the end. Philip Guston is an abstract painter in the ’50s, then returns to a face that smokes and drinks. There’s also Helion, and Giacometti. I’m going to emphasize these cases of a massive reincarnation of something that had disappeared. There’s nothing mysterious or passéiste about it. It’s a need.

LS: Why have you discounted the art of identity politics? The exhibition is resolutely Americano/Eurocentric.

JC: The notion of art is strictly Western. It has no pertinence outside our culture. The issue of political correctness is thoroughly foreign to me. What strikes a European as more important are the ethnic wars dragging us back to the situation of 1914. That’s why I’m tempted to evoke the refusal of representation in extra-Occidental cultures, especially Islam. You make an image and you’re likely to have your throat cut. This is the kind of cultural problem that leads to religious wars, and it’s happening right now.

LS: How are you going to approach this?

JC: A sensational solution would be to invite the faculty of the École des Beaux Arts in Algiers, where the director has already been assassinated, to teach in Venice. But they would probably all be killed.

LS: You intend to treat the veil’s interdiction of the face?

JC: I’m going to show Helmut Newton’s Sie Kommen—a diptych of five magnificent woman, eugenic prototypes, nude in one photo, dressed as executives in the other-next to photographs by Gaetan Gatian de Clerambault, the ’30s French psychiatrist who was fascinated by the draped fabric worn by Muslim women.

LS: And the ethnic conflicts?

JC: I’ve sent a colleague to the former Yugoslavia to look for material illustrating the present conflict’s pressure on the status of the image. What does it mean for a Montenegran, Serbian, or Croatian artist to make images now?

LS: What’s the connection between this paroxysm of ethnic or religious difference and the genome, or the mapping of the brain?

JC: The idea of monstrosity, of complete difference. I hesitated before deciding to show Nancy Burson’s computer-manipulated photographs of faces side by side with her photographs of children with genetic problems that make their faces monstrous. It’s pure horror, but at the same time it’s pure otherness.

LS: There seems to be a clear teratological motif, which spills over into that most eminent other, death.

JC: It’s going to be a very joyous Biennale. Its chronology, 1895–1995, will be interrupted by thematic groupings, exploding the idea of time. You’ll see Andres Serrano’s “Morgue” photographs, for example, alongside other morgue shots of cadavers dating to 1895, 1920, 1930. We’ll see the same obsession embodied in nearly identical forms at a hundred years’ distance, ruining the idea of the Modern.

LS: In New York there’s been a strong rejection of Serrano’s “Morgue” series.

JC: Of course, it’s totally taboo. It’s the heart of the exhibition.

LS: What do you mean when you describe the choice of representing the body, above all the face, as metaphysical?

JC: Kafka says you don’t make love to phantoms. Equally, you don’t give yourself up to voluptuousness with abstract works.

LS: Both points are debatable. What do you mean by metaphysical?

JC: Once you’ve posed the problem of the face, that is, the face-to-face, you’ve gone back into the metaphysical. Reread Emmanuel Levinas.

Lauren Sedofsky is a writer who lives in Paris. She is currently at work on a book about contemporary architecture and is also collaborating on a screenplay with the French film-director Leos Carax.