Published  08/07/2001

Paris comment: e-letter from Paris

h1>Paris comment: e-letter from Paris
Art Populaire, Liza Lou's Back Yard


Paris is on the rebound. Yet the key exhibitions here so far this year in terms of 20th century art seem not so much to represent the traditional centrality of French culture per se, as Paris's sophistication and eclecticism as a reflective, intellectual core in discourse. This is all to the good, since the largest ever exposition of Pop Art had opened last March at the Centre Pompidou.

Les Annees Pop (The Pop Years) was intended to initiate a wave of retro-cultural consumer bingeing in the surrounding boutiques and stores of Paris, as well as the involvement of fashion houses — Paris as the great interpretative centre, no less. Catherine Grenier, chief curator of the show, intended the display to be not only educative for the new generation unaware of the full implications of l956—l968, but also for ‘a return to optimism’; that spirit of l968, er, well just before, when a benign new world might still be constructed, and a happy reconciliation of creativity and consumerism, was aimed for. ‘The moment when the young dream no longer of a political utopia, but can dream of a cultural utopia. Indeed, Pop is one’.

The dream and the actualite of the show were strangely irreconcilable. To French critics, 'Pop' has always seemed to be some Anglo-American confection; 'La Defie' of essential lightness and ephemerality, suffused with Anglo-Saxon humour — itself beyond Gallic comprehension. Accordingly, the curators were allocated only limited space on the sixth level of the Centre Pompidou, to cover all arts developments of the genre. Given that the French contribution of the period was significant primarily in music and film, this limitation did not help when the various objects of Pop were jostling together in a congested emporium of space. Perhaps there was an underlying misconception as to what did and did not constitute Pop — and where irony of the mid-Atlantic kind failed to be meaningful to the essential French sense of irony. From the viewpoint of French critics, such as Michel Nuridsany in Le Figaro, or Herve Gauville and Elisabeth Lebovici in Liberation, the exhibition was too much a catch-all cultural bricolage, (Dali and Duchamp notwithstanding) and the consensus was verging on the catastrophic, as with Tate Modern's own stab at definition, the ill-fated Century City Show.

Which brings one to the new exhibition here which is directly comparable. At the Fondation Cartier there has just opened Un Art Populaire (until 4 November). Here, the product of French-defined globalism is revealed at its best; a life-enhancing, humanising, yet curiously innocent phenomenon. Art Brut, as defined by Jean Dubuffet provides the initial point of definition. The professional eye of the curators has selected the product by and large of the untrained eye of man. Examples of genuine popular art and culture are drawn here to Paris from several quarters; from Beishing, Kinshasa, New Mexico, or Los Angeles. The art is manifold and diverse, linked only by an effervescent sense of obsessive creativity. There is none of the self-consciousness of Century City. The trained artists from Los Angeles establish, from that culture, a perfect parallel to the other world's popular manifestations. Liza Lou has made an installation representing her back garden paradise. It is her real garden; real, rather than contrived. From their community near Beijing, the Luo brothers provide a superb scenario, curiously buddhist and yet supremely materialistic; the colliding ingredients of the global economy seem to unite in an orchestrated tableau of jubilation at the survival of human life. Overall, the exhibition is suffused with an abiding modernity, with only everyday reference systems to guide the wary. This exhibition is a curatorial and organisational triumph.

Two remarkable sculpture-related shows have just preceded this event, as if to consolidate the traditional role of Paris as a centre of gravity in 20th century art and letters. The show of (mainly) drawings and a few sculptures, celebrating the centenary of the birth of Alberto Giacometti, at the Centre Pompidou, revealed the working process of the sculptor. While lacking the status of the late David Sylvester's superb l965 Tate Gallery Giacometti retrospective, this exhibition revealed with notable skill the extent and application of the sculptor's method of elimination of all that was not essential to his objective. Giacometti's achievement in editing down his own concept to reach the final state of grace is brought home to the viewer in seeing the small group of figurative sculptures included.

The second exhibition of a kind here was the show Rodin in l900; the Alma Exhibition’ at the Luxembourg Museum (Palais Luxembourg). Here was the antithesis of conceptual art; sculpture in process in primary form, as of clay and plaster casts. The exhibition commemorates Rodin's successful effort in curating his own work in l900. So, the artist's view of himself remains central, accordingly exemplified by his chosen model casts. The essential fluidity and temporality of clay and plasterwork presents an instantaneity that the bronzes can never possess. In this climate then, of burgeoning impressionism in art, it was up to Rodin to render an equivalent, epitomised by the sheer fact of non-completion, where faces are provisional — rough texture and displaced limbs going together in freedom from chronology. So these superb Rodins of a penultimate state emphasise the vitality of process as a condition of form, disregarding the lifelessness of the bronze figures ultimately made.

As if to remind us of the importance of Paris as cultural arbiter, the Centre Pompidou has again provided a fascinating reappraisal of the importance of Alfred Hitchcock as film maker and cultural influence, in Hitchcock et l'Art (through 24 September). Here, the great Anglo-American director is accorded a major tribute from the intellectual centre of 20th century film. Hitchcock is placed up in the Hall of Fame, not only with Jean - Luc Godard (whose London retrospective is now at hand) but with the leading sculptors, painters, and graphic artists of his generation. From Paris, that is again something.

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