Fransk konst—en ny generation” (French art—a new generation)


Forty years ago, in 1945, the French battleship Le Terrible steered into the harbor of Stockholm. Loaded with a number of third-rate French Modernists headed by the “official” painter of the French navy, the once-Fauve Albert Marquet, her mission was to manifest, on the periphery of Europe, the unbroken grandeur of French culture—and to bring home sorely needed export incomes to a country still heavily afflicted by war damage. Since then much water has flowed under the bridges of the Seine, and gunboat diplomacy has been replaced by more sophisticated methods. Still, the Terrible incident may seem emblematic, at least from a Swedish point of view, of today’s French cultural diplomacy, too, in which the old companions in harness —crass business and cultural chauvinism—have been cast in the leading parts of a grandiose play with a corporate touch. Fresh from the Paris show “Peinture—l’autre nouvelle generation” (Painting—the other new generation) at the Grand Palais, eight painters in their 20s and 30s exhibited at Kulturhuset. They were joined by seven sculptors of an older generation. An art-political manifestation mounted by the state-financed Centre National des Arts Plastiques, the show attempted to “diversify the market” and introduce an abstract mode of expression alongside the dominating “figuration libre.” “The reviews were not very enthusiastic, but the public liked it and it sold Claude Mollard, a representative of the French government, assured the Stockholm art public as they prepared to meet this so-called ”other generation" of young French painters (though without having seen the principal one, whose art has never reached north of Hamburg).

Though this heterogeneous group of abstract painters will go to any length to avoid association with the postwar École de Paris, they still seem to want to produce work that “looks like art” A consequence of this, at once natural and paradoxical, is that their work barely recalls the work of the painters they name, in a very un-French spirit, as their models—Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella. To be sure, the big format is here, but not the large scale, and still less any of the stringency of the prominent inspirers. On the other hand, several of these painters, through their agitated yet surprisingly lifeless use of acrylic paint, may come close to the “Heftige Malerei” of Berlin, though less through a sustaining figuration than through, as in the case of Stéphane Bordarier, an extremely vague and diluted variant of the dreamy, lyrical painting of Nicola De Maria. The only artist here who resisted the collective listlessness that besets this “autre génération nouvelle” was Stéphane Braconnier, whose slightly ecstatic triptychs of shaped canvases possess a light and a flaming, driving kind of brushstroke that recall El Greco.

The sculpture section, which was the part of the show that the curators of Kulturhuset had the opportunity to influence, was not dominated by the same air of political/commercial aggressiveness. On the other hand, one might have felt that these sculptors, ten or fifteen years senior to the painters, are a little too much at home in the well-explored domain of arte povera. They rely a little too much on the imaginative power of a simple nature/culture dialectic, hardly as credible now as it was ten years ago. However, credit must be given to Jacques Vieille for his installation piece, in which the gaps in a tall, minimalist grid-structure composed of 40 oblong tables were activated by fagots forming flamboyant clustered piers like those of a Gothic arch. This work’s visual and conceptual elegance transcended boring routine as well as simple dialectics. So did Jean Clareboudt’s big, hanging wooden platform in which exact surface sections of steel and glass were confronted by softly cut round stones and drifts of white sand. In its relation to space and to the symbolic qualities of the materials, this work was more reminiscent of the Japanese Mono-ha group than of arte povera. It may well be that these installation pieces saved the exhibition from total collapse under the pressure of the organizers’ undisguised cultural/political mission.

Lars Nittve

Translated from the Swedish by Lars-Hakan Svensson.