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PARIS — According to Sigmund Freud, a key that opens a room in a dream is unmistakably phallic. Keys to a Passion at the Fondation Louis Vuitton dances on the head of this repugnant patriarchal pin, delivering work that is hypnotically beautiful and perfect for summertime reverie.
This phallic, less-than-benevolent, interpretation on my part merely places the work in Keys to a Passion within the male modernist canon, one that includes Alberto Giacometti, Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Edvard Munch, Piet Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich, Constantin Brancusi, Fernand Léger, Mark Rothko, Francis Bacon, and Otto Dix. Dicks all the way down. There is only one woman included in the show, the Finnish painter Helene Schjerfbeck (1862–1946).
Even given that obvious and sad historical fact, Keys to a Passion is something of an antidote to the recent pessimistic, ahistorical flop at the Museum of Modern Art, The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World, which seemed to posit that everything has been done, and all that is left for today’s internet-savvy artists to do is to recycle previous painterly discoveries. According to MoMA curator Laura Hoptman, “The obsession with recuperating aspects of the past is the condition of culture in our time,” thus offering no alternative technique or viewpoint. The implication that everything in the visual arts has been done by the men now in the basement at Fondation Vuitton is ridiculously lacking in ambition. If anything, the limitations inherent in their general preference for reductive abstraction may show young artists today that they are not doomed to merely recycle what came before them. But in comparing Keys to a Passion to The Forever Now, it becomes clear that, rather than serve as a key to future practices, painting styles continue to be endlessly duplicated.
Keys to a Passion skips over Duchamp and artists working in other mediums to display the normative, hegemonic field of painting and sculpture. Yet despite this limitation, the show is one of the Fondation’s best, a curatorial tour de force by Suzanne Pagé and Béatrice Parent. Luxuriously installed, the exhibition includes around 60 modernist chefs-d’oeuvres that have never been shown together (because they make no specific theoretical point when brought together) and they probably never will again.
So now that the new, flashy Frank Gehry haute couture building has become familiar, timelessness trumps timeliness. The chefs-d’oeuvres are reached by taking the escalator to the basement. This route took me past “Inside the Horizon” (2014), the slick, minimal commission by Olafur Eliasson of columns of varying widths placed along a watery walkway with two of its sides covered in mirrors and the third in yellow glass. The work is a wonderful (non) example of modernist, reductive abstraction as interior decoration.
The exhibition is arranged around four themes that have interested the collector and founder of the Louis Vuitton Foundation, Bernard Arnault: “subjective expressionism,” “contemplative,” “popist,” and “music.” These catchwords supposedly absorb all the whacky, scattered ontological and epistemological shifts Monsieur Arnault encountered when forming the foundation’s contemporary collection. But the works here are not only a plunge into his psychic formations. The works, in fact, are not his. They are on loan from prestigious institutions and private collections across Russia, France, England, and the US.
The exhibition is rewarding, presenting a conceptual rebuttal to the boundless Instagram-Facebook-Twitter-Tumblr matrix posts that too easily stand in for art. In the catalogue, one of the curators of the exhibition, Pagé, is keen to stress that it is necessary to formulate an emotional dialogue with these works, requiring time and concentration. In a way she attempts to re-privilege the power of the art object by reiterating the physical and immediate. But this European exhibition (only one American is in the show) of modernist chefs-d’oeuvres, is guided mostly by a search for that slippery word called “quality.” Nothing can be mistaken here for a political utterance.
The first room, “Subjective Expressionism,” opens with a shriek from the Munch Museum in Oslo, the first version of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” (circa 1893 or 1910), here set on a black wall. This throbbing meltdown is placed in dialogue with the five Helene Schjerfbeck self-portraits that show her face metamorphose from that of a young woman to the one painted a few weeks before she died (dating from 1915 to 1944). Across from them hangs Otto Dix’s brazen “Portrait of the Dancer Anita Berber” (1925), Francis Bacon’s “Study for Portrait” (1949), and also his “Study from the Human Body” (1949), Bacon’s first known nude, depicting the rather eerie back of a burly man as he slips behind a curtain. Watching from across the room is the faceless, melancholic man in Kazimir Malevich’s “Complex Presentiment” (1928). Sharing that stare is Alberto Giacometti’s “Portrait of Jean Genet” (1954–1955), a feathery painting of the flamboyant and provocative Genet that darkly conveys something like existential loneliness.
The second phase of the exhibit, the “Contemplative” act, opens with a series of paintings that meditate on nature: Claude Monet’s “Nymphéas” (Water Lilies) (1916–1919), three of Piet Mondrian’s seascapes from 1909, four versions of Lake Keitele by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, lake and mountain views by Ferdinand Hodler, and paintings of the North Sea by Emil Nolde. We then move on to the radical abstraction of Kazimir Malevich’s “Black Square, Black Circle, Black Cross” (1923). They are objects charged with psychic energies, but they also have a certain redundancy about them that makes them appear matter-of-fact, scientific.
In the next room, Piet Mondrian’s majestic “Composition X in Black and White” (1915) and “Composition with Lines, Second State” (1916–1917) hangs next to a totem pole by Constantin Brancusi, his “Endless Column, Version 1” (1918). Having a wall of its own is Mark Rothko’s large painting “No. 46 [Black, Ochre, Red over Red]” (1957) that plunged me into its impenetrable mists. This room was the most powerful to sit with because it invited unabashed contemplation. How it does this probably can’t be convincingly described analytically. I can only proceed by descending into the pulsations of Malevich, the whirrs of Mondrian, the loose, bumpy rhythms of Brancusi, and the ominous gritty flatlands of Rothko.
The third sequence, “Popist” (is that even a word?), takes a break from avant-garde elitism by capturing consumer habits in the media, in sport, and in advertising. Robert Delaunay’s “The Cardiff Team” (1912–1913), Fernand Léger’s intensely machine-like “Three Woman” (1921–1922), and Francis Picabia’s five 1940s appropriation-based paintings all make fun of romantic idealization and are all touchstones in post-modern culture.
The fourth sequence, “Music,” opens with two hedonistic works by Henri Matisse, “The Dance” (1909–1910) from St. Petersburg, painted when youthful, and another from his glorious final period, “The Sorrows of the King” (1952). I have rarely seen a better, more refined interplay between two whimsical works. Across the room, Gino Severini’s thundering “Dynamic Hieroglyphic of the Bal Tabarin” (1912) captures the vigor of a Parisian dance hall and Frantisek Kupka’s “Localization of Graphic Motifs II” (1912-1913) plays off against the stylish “Panels For Edwin R Campbell” (1914) by Wasily Kandinsky.
That is the show, but be sure to take the elevator to the fourth floor to discover the terraces and galleries, which temporarily house some of the private contemporary collection, such as Sigmar Polke’s outstanding “Cloud Paintings” (1989) and Nam June Paik’s “TV Rodin (Le Penseur)” (1976–1978). In that piece a naked man, modeled after Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker” (1904), studies himself in a video monitor via closed circuit television.
Paik’s piece sums up a great deal learnt here — it shows that artists can continue to love and enjoy the circuit in which great masters of the 20th century apply their transcendent ideas but warns against narcissistically copying their styles. The work suggests a need for art that is anti-transcendental and anti-modern. One that breaks the master circuit.
Les Clefs d’une passion (Keys to a Passion) continues at the Fondation Louis Vuitton (8 avenue du Mahatma Gandhi, Bois de Boulogne, 75116 Paris) through July 6.