PRINT Summer 1995


Pascaline Cuvelier

FROM THE VERY BEGINNING of the year, what’s been shaking up the Paris art scene has been more political than artistic in nature. No more glosses on post-Minimalism or post-post-Conceptualism, on the ubiquity of installation art, on the phantomlike return of “real” painting or of postpainting. No more taking the crisis generation seriously, with their trashy language punctuated by lots of “I, um, like, uh.” Those fiery discussions about museum curators playing not just the directors’ role (as in the theater, if not the circus) but also the artists’, casting (real) artists as extras in their own shows—all forgotten. Politics has overshadowed everything.

To watch a right-wing president take over from a left-winger is to know the worst has arrived, as it did on Sunday May 7 with the election of Jacques Chirac. The funniest and most popular show on television, Guignois de l’Info—a Spitting Image–like satire showing politicians as cartoonlike puppets nakedly displaying their stupidity to France’s 3.5 million unemployed viewers—has dubbed the new guy “the big ass”; the satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné calls him Château Chirac (Chirac castle). Chirac’s younger supporters, for their part, have adopted the slogan “On est trad!” (We are traditional!). It looks like “Trad art” is next—a frightful prospect.

Under the “cohabitation,” the working arrangement endured by the socialist expresident, François Mitterand, a right-wing minister of culture, Jacques Toubon, was already in place. The moment he was appointed the art community went into a funk. Indeed Toubon has carried out a de facto policy of exclusion and centralization through innumerable bureaucratic measures aimed at frustrating the efforts of the regional art centers (known as DRACS and FRACS, in a system initiated in 1982). Most of these centers had tried not only to exhibit contemporary art but to acquire it; the 23 FRACS have mounted 700 shows and acquired 9,700 works from 2,300 different artists since their inception. Free from the political pressures and other demands faced by larger institutions, these spaces had shown a new openness to the subversive, inquisitive bent of art from abroad, or from the newest generation of French artists.

It’s easy to imagine a worst-case scenario under the new administration: a conservative return to predigested, conformist blue-chip values, with plenty of interference at the government level. So it’s not hard to understand the long faces of artists, dealers, critics, curators, and others in the arts. Even before the promised deterioration sets in, the artist Bertrand Lavier, with his characteristic humor and lucidity, has come up with the slogan “It was better before,” to dispel the oppressive atmosphere and get everyone to stop kvetching like a bunch of old folks about the good ol’ days. On the flip side, Christian Boltanski feels so hopeless in the face of the rise of regressive ideas, and the lack of progress in the arts, that he can no longer bear to show in institutionally sanctioned spaces, and often takes refuge in churches, or creates site-specific installations in unconventional locations.

On the more optimistic side, Paris has recently seen some grand exhibitions, the kind that give you such an eyeful that, like the sun, they can’t be looked at directly. First place goes to Constantin Brancusi, an adopted child of France, who came to Paris from his native Romania on foot. Unrecognized and unsupported by the ungrateful French during his own lifetime, he has now been accorded a costly postmortem retrospective by the Pompidou. This is essential sculpture, for the pleasure of the eyes, as they say in the souks of North Africa, with the awesome intelligence of its pedestals and the prescience of its work-in-progress. The exhibition’s great jokes (apart from the ridiculous reconstruction of Brancusi’s studio, with its worn-out little tools displayed as if in a museum of folk art) were the metal plates on which the sculptures stood, which would beep loudly if a viewer made the slightest move toward them, as if a concert of burglars were trying to get through an armor-plated door. You might think this was some kind of esthetic/installational statement on the part of the curators, but no, it turned out the Pompidou’s architecture couldn’t support the sculpture’s weight—the floor moved. That’s right—hundreds of Brancusis, all finely balanced, were threatening to fall through the floor, to the tune of the lenders’ wrath.

This sculptural knockout was preceded at the Pompidou by another delightful blockbuster, a Kurt Schwitters retrospective. This ecstasy of reified scraps (not to mention the reconstruction of the Merzbau, Schwitters’ mad little hideout) was a superb draw, though a degree of impatience with the curators’ instinct for exhaustiveness was certainly legitimate. After the 250th pebble or métro ticket, it was hard not to feel that feasting on this marvelous dumpster was going to give you indigestion. The show’s flaw is typical: there is a propensity in the Parisian art world for a globalizing discourse, a willingness to be seduced by the notion that a complete overview is possible. True skill would lie in being able, like Ariadne, to pick out a subtle and economical thread to guide us without fanfare to the core of an artistic process. But there you go: to impress the taxpayer and shine like the Sun King in the limelight of recognition, you have to play rich and greedy. It’s the Louis XIV syndrome, impossible to expunge from the French mentality.

Another spatiotemporal flaw worth noting is the compulsion to give priority to the dead, even in museums supposedly consecrated to altogether modern and contemporary art. The assumption is that dead artists have a loyal following as far as the “general public” goes. Thus we have Marc Chagall, André Derain, and several versions of Matisse’s La Danse, 1930–33 (in the Barnes collection), displayed here and there at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. From this “antiquities reassure me” genre, however, one show deserves to be rescued: a superb Italian exhibition (originating at the Fiat-Palazzo Grassi, in Venice) on Renaissance architecture from Brunelleschi to Michelangelo at the Musée des Monuments Français, in which the models were as precious as they were astonishing.

Into the “surprise-me ” category fall two Beaubourg shows: last winter’s refreshing though somewhat weak exhibition “Hors Limites” (Beyond boundaries), on less-conventional forms of artmaking (happenings, performances, body art), and “Féminin-Masculin: Le Sexe dans l’art” (Feminine-masculine: sex in art) (in art, not of art, a deliberate nuance), which is scheduled for October. It is difficult to imagine the tenacity and exhaustive courage of the latter show’s two curators, Bernard Marcadé and Marie-Laure Bernadac, who have had to contend with a reduced budget and all sorts of hassles, especially in commissioning works from artists (though you’d think this would be the museum’s role at its most basic), in order to mount an exhibition that deviates, conceptually, from conventional practices. It would seem that the theme of any sex outside the angelic is still taboo in this prudish nation, which nonetheless has always trumpeted its libertine habits, its dangerous liaisons, and its penchant for the erotic.

Those looking for shock value might have visited Fabrice Hybert’s show “1-1=2,” at the Musée d’Art Moderne. Hybert, the young artist of the moment, installed a branch of a department store in the museum’s entrance hall: at this gigantic bazaar all kinds of everyday objects, joyously arranged on tables, could be bought by visitors. Some viewed it as a sign of malaise, others as an explosive gesture, while the undecided who had read Fitzgerald declared that failure is a work of art. The truly beautiful surprise of the season was Annette Messager’s retrospective at the same museum (which often puts on more audacious exhibitions than Beaubourg does). Hers was an unclassifiable show with a curious, disturbing sense of humor, as evident in the oldest pieces—which have lost none of their flavor, or their ability to look at the most minute particularities of life—as in recent projects. We have “our” artist; this is undeniable and encouraging.

One should note that the feminine element in the art scene, whether on a national or an international level, is establishing itself, going in experimental directions, and belatedly receiving its due. Proof positive: the Musée d’Art Moderne’s scheduling of three consecutive solo shows by women—Messager, then Claude Cahun, then Louise Bourgeois. As far as phallocentrism goes, France seems to be getting better. One sign of this improvement is the placement of Marie Curie’s ashes in the Pantheon (the first woman posthumously inhabiting this venerable institution). Another sign: the sudden popularity of a young artist with a strange lucidity, Marie-Ange Guilleminot, with her recent acrobatic machine and her old-fashioned, troubling, erotic manipulations. Even the galleries you actually feel like going to are often headed by women, such as Jennifer Flay, Anne de Villepoix, Chantal Crousel, Ghislaine Hussenot, or the Galerie des Archives. Other young and intrepid spaces where you can actually enjoy yourself are Ma Galerie and Air de Paris. On television, on Canal + (an independent television station), Brigitte Cornand, a documentary filmmaker and an art critic, broadcast a successful, probing movie last April, Oh boy it’s a girl!, which focused on this (international) rise of the feminine in art. And the no doubt unconsciously phallocratic media have taken note, though their response is to behave according to the cowardly motto “Take courage—run!”

Despite the frightening rise of the xenophobic right in France (known as a “land of asylum” since the Revolution of 1789), the French still greedily consume whatever comes from abroad. Yet the new American Center, rehoused in a witty new building by the American architect Frank Gehry, has so far proven unable to regain the enriching and provocative role it played in Paris life in the ’60s and ’70s, when it stood at the foot of a Lebanese cedar planted on the Boulevard Raspail by Chateaubriand. That site now seats the jeweler Cartier and his Foundation, in a sandwich of glass built by the French architectural star Jean Nouvel. In terms of things like picture rails and surfaces from which works can be hung, it’s something of a failure. After conceiving a bewildering object, an “endless column” (which will doubtless never be built), for the financial quarter in La Défense, Nouvel won the prize of designing the “Grande Stade” in Saint-Dénis. Then, suddenly, it was taken away from him and given to another competitor. Great uproar in the profession. The architecture world has also noted the opening of Christian de Portzamparc’s Cité de la Musique (City of music) at La Villette, a building both pretty and sophisticated, and of Dominique Perrault’s arresting Bibliothèque Nationale de France (four towers in the form of an open book).

In the realm of design, the bulimic and enervating Philippe Starck takes up almost all the room. In the little space that’s left, Martin Szeleky’s subtle work knots together a keen intelligence and a gift for playing with art-historical references, while for fun we have a Parisian Australian, Marc Newson. An ambiguous show, “Pièces Meublées,” at the Jousse Seguin gallery, humorously celebrated the marriage of contemporary art and ’50s design: each of the 18 artists in the show selected an object or piece of furniture around which to construct his or her piece.

At a time when the inventor of cinema, Louis Lumière, is being celebrated tenderly, let’s take a moment to talk about more recent directors. From his native Switzerland that honorary Frenchman Jean-Luc Godard has sent us JLG/JLG (JLG by JLG, 1994), a kind of self-portrait in which he plays the distanced intimate, which enabled him to display contrasting emotions. As for fashion, Paris’ great fetish right now is not French but Belgian—Martin Margiela. And popping up here and there are a number of young, courageous artist artisans of clothes, who prefer making unique pieces to following the commercial path of prêt-à-porter. The stars of this Nouvelle Couture are Marc Le Bihan and that mad lover of tortured material, Shinichiro Arakawa. To end on a gastronomic note, a French tradition now somewhat in shambles, there’s that strange new restaurant Le Mimado, located in a rundown building on the former site of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France—an artifact in itself.

Pascaline Cuvelier is a staff writer at the Parisian weekly Libération.

Translated from the French by Warren Niesluchowski and Sheila Glaser.