Concerning abstract painting, one is tempted to say (…) it has pure hands, but it doesn’t have hands.
—Gilles Deleuze, La logique de la sensation
Like philosophy, art exceeds lived experience by creating an approach to chaotic virtuality.
—Tamsin Lorraine, Irigaray and Deleuze: Experiments in Visceral Philosophy
SAINT PAUL DE VENCE, France — The very idea of philosopher as art curator deeply interests me. One swiftly dreams of what Gilles Deleuze might have done with the opportunity to curate an art exhibition at MoMA: Art and Alloverness perhaps? Or Michel Foucault: the New Panopticons at the Centre Georges Pompidou? What would Susan Sontag or Roland Barthes have done at the International Center of Photography or at the Tate? What could Friedrich Nietzsche have done at the Louvre Museum? What indeed could Georges Bataille have haughtily done at the Metropolitan Museum of Art?
To be sure we have already noticed what Jean-François Lyotard prepared at the Pompidou (with Thierry Chaput): Les Immatériaux (1985), Paul Virilio’s curatorial forays at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain: La Vitesse (1991), Un monde réel (1999), The Desert (2000), and Unknown Quantity (2002) and Christine Buci-Glucksmann — who advised me to see the subject of this review — has practiced art curatorial activities on occasion. I have seen Alain Badiou blathering on incomprehensibly about art twice and have heard Michel Onfray speak on art’s epicurean aspects. Arthur Danto‘s graduate philosophy seminar on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes at Columbia University was influential on my development as an artist. Clearly, the most audaciously successful art show I have SEEN by a thinker/philosopher was Rolywholyover: A Composition for Museum by John Cage at the Guggenheim Museum in Soho in 1994 (yes, John Cage counts here).
And one might, as I do, curiously wonder what such a fertile opportunity would yield from some of our contemporary philosophers. Still vibrating with this fuzzy and dreamy hypothetical, let us now turn to the “truth” of the matter. With admirable aplomb, Bernard-Henri Lévy — long considered to be one of France’s most influential intellectuals (read pop philosopher), if not its most innovative — has curated a sumptuous art exhibition entitled “Adventures of truth” – Painting and philosophy: a narrative at Olivier Kaeppelin’s Maeght Foundation in Saint Paul de Vence (inaugurated in 1964 by dealer Aimé Maeght). I found it artistically exciting, but I was somewhat ambivalent, and thus disappointed from a discursive standpoint, concerning its philosophical aspects. In this classic modernist-based exhibition, Lévy posed the question of whether and when philosophy or painting triumph over each other, beginning with Plato’s banning of art from his ideal Republic. Dip in the Braque pool, anyone? Stroll in the Miró labyrinth?
Lévy, known in France by the acronym BHL, co-founded the New Philosophers movement in France (which broke with Marxist utopianism — see his La Barbarie à Visage Humain from 1977). He has often traveled to regions of crisis and has at times urged military intervention against human rights abuses. He has been an unremitting supporter of military action against totalitarian regimes in Bosnia, Darfur, Libya, and, most recently, Syria. His account of the murder of journalist Daniel Pearl has been generally praised. For all that he has already earned my unruffled respect.
Lévy also exhibits considerable taste in his selection of work — both French and international, old and contemporary — for “Adventures of truth” (the scare quotes seem appropriate, as you will soon read) but has of yet not greatly interested me as a philosopher. This show of taste was conspicuously lacking in his first foray into artistic activity as film director of Le Jour et la Nuit (1977) — considered “the worst French film in decades” by Cahiers du cinéma and possibly the “worst film in history” by the French version of Slate (my regrets to John Waters).
For this show (and it is a show in every sense of the word), Lévy stages the (supposed) age-old skirmish between philosophy and painting, presenting the two as sometime rivals and sometime allies. The central idea behind “Adventures of truth” was to interrogate the question of knowing how philosophy helps or hinders painting or, by contrast, how painting prolongs, revives or silences philosophy. It concluded with the less than earthmoving conclusion that they indeed aid each other, as I know they do. This dialectical ride only works if we first beat a dead horse: Plato.
As we know, according to Plato, all artistic creation is a form of imitation. That which truly exists (in the “world of ideas”) is a type created by God; the concrete things man perceives in his existence are shadowy representations of this ideal type. Therefore, the painter imitates an imitation, twice removed from the truth: a simulacrum of a simulacrum.
This exhibition, which in truth offers more in the way of hype (Can we tell truth from fiction, fact from representation?) than in “truth,” develops a narrative/simulacra/journey in seven sequences: The Fate of the shadows, Coup d’état technique, The Royal Way, Counter-Being, Philosophy’s tomb, Revenge of Plato and Plastemes and philosophemes. If that sounds rather melodramatic, it is. However the opportunity to see some superb work fighting it out amongst themselves in this or any context counterbalances any top-heavy curatorial philo-concepts encountered. I drooled over many works from the Marguerite and Aimé Maeght Foundation’s holdings (and the Maeght family’s collection) and from many other museum and private collections. Bravo Monsieur Lévy.
I savored the back and forth between ancient, modern and contemporary art: for example that between a small Pierre Bonnard painting of a nude bathing woman (“Nu somber” from 1941-46) and Andy Warhol’s Jackie Onassis piece “Studies of Jackie” from 1964 on soiled paper. There were masterworks there, such as “Crucifixion” from 1540 by the great Bronzino (Agnolo di Cosimo), Pierre Klossowski’s two large drawings, Alexej von Jawlensky (“Saviour’s face: Dolorosa” from 1920), Francis Picabia (“Mélibée” from 1931, for one), Cosmè Tura (from Venice’s Museo Correr a wonderful “Pietà” from 1460), tasty small collages by Kurt Schwitters, a Henri Matisse drawing “Bénédiction à Baudelaire,” Philippe de Champaigne (a vanitas), Francis Bacon (“Head: Man in Blue” from 1961), a 1911 painting by Marcel Duchamp (“Steeple-chase”), Franz Kline (“Bethlehem” from 1954), a painting of St. Veronica receiving the mark of Christ’s face on her veil by an anonymous 15th-century Flemish artist, and the ultimate Sol LeWitt. These are things that made me feel fine – art that helped me see a vibrant future. Unfortunately, I missed the Lucas Cranach masterpiece “Adam and Eve” (1526) that so inspired philosopher Georges Bataille as it had been returned (the show was extended to November 11th — past its original end date). Also missing from the show when I saw it the last day of September was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s graffiti cross “Crisis X” from 1982 (an image used to promote the show).
Other rather excellent work I found there, sorrowfully cramped in the often off-kilter and overstuffed installation, were anatomical studies by 18th Century master Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and Peter Paul Rubens from 1606, a nice Pablo Picasso “Torso de Femme,” and pieces by René Magritte (“Les vacances de Hegel,” depicting a glass of water balancing on an umbrella, from 1958), Robert Filliou, Lucio Fontana (Concetto Spaziale, La fine di Dio from 1963), Joseph Beuys (“Fettfleck” drawing from 1957), Jasper Johns’s portrait of Marcel Duchamp, Reyer Jacobsz van Blommendael, André Breton (“Nadja”), a bevy of Dada manifestos, the groovy Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven’s portrait of Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Léger (“Contrastes de forme” from 1913), Valerio Adami (“Portrait de Jacques Derrida”), Jackson Pollock (“Crucifixion” from 1939-40), and a superb Paul Delvaux (a symposium of skeletons in a library called “Waiting for the Liberation” from 1944).
There is an interesting Dinos and Jake Chapman (a labor-intensive hell called “Upstairs and Downstairs”), a fascinating rare Barnett Newman (“Genetic Moment” from 1947), Yves Klein (“Portrait-relief de Claude Pascal” from 1962), Gérard Garouste (“Les libraires aveugles” from 2005 where two blind men follow a donkey loaded with books) and a Jacques Martinez (a car crass sculpture that piled into a solid pillar of white books called “Triomphe de la philosophie”). Also, there is a nice Bernar Venet math painting, Joan Miró (“Les Philosophes I et II” from 1956), Wassily Kandinsky (an early symbolist series), Huang Yong Ping (“Plato’s Cave”) and a poorly installed Joseph Kosuth (a tip of the hat to Kosuth’s 1969 manifesto Art after Philosophy, where he posed that philosophical systems of knowledge are finished, and their place must be occupied by the artist).
All this very different art encircled each other in often vague but splendid ways. A key painting here is “La Datcha,” a group portrait of various Post-structuralist French philosophers at sunset that ridicules their philosophical pretensions. It was painted in 1969 collaboratively by five artist-satirists (Gilles Aillaud, Francis Biras, Lucio Fanti, Fabio Rieti and Eduardo Arroyo) in pseudo-Soviet Realist style. The painting wickedly satirizes a ghostly Louis Althusser (Bernard-Henri Lévy’s professor) but it also lampoons Jacques Lacan, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Michel Foucault (stroking his head as a sign of endless and pointless meditation) and Roland Barthes (portrayed playing waiter, bringing in a tray of petit fours to the group).
The worst part of the show was a series of short videos, directed and shot by Lévy, where we see contemporary artists (including Marina Abramovic, Miquel Barceló, Olafur Eliasson, Alexandre Singh, Huang Yong Ping, Jacques Monory, Anselm Kiefer, Gérard Garouste, Kehinde Wiley, Maurizio Cattelan, Zeng Fanzhi, and Enrico Castellani) reading a page of philosophy (Plato, Hegel, Schelling, Heidegger, etc.). But these were placed outdoors on the terrace and could be easily avoided by looking down on the Miró labyrinth or, well, leaving the terrace.
Perhaps it is obvious that the playful Lévy here returns us to a (rather grand, if cheeky) formal structure while indulging in a deeply subjective narrative. I read this philosophical folding back from post-structural rhizomatic thinking into modernist subjectivity as refreshingly audacious on Lévy’s part. Indeed the man has chutzpah and is unafraid of exhibiting his naïveté, as he flagrantly does in some of his simplistic notes in the English exhibition guide brochure. For example: On Paul Klee’s “Group of Masks” from 1939 he writes, “Klee does not owe us truth in painting — he gives it to us.” Truly?
“Adventures of truth” – Painting and philosophy: a narrative (« Les aventures de la vérité » – Peinture et philosophie : un récit) continues at the Fondation Maeght (623 Chemin des Gardettes, Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France) through November 11th.
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