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PARIS — Art lovers are lamenting the imminent closing of La maison rouge (The Red House), a non-profit gallery known for its daring programming and focus on outsider art since its inception in 2004. Gallery doors shut for good on October 28th. In perfect alignment with its free spirit and courageous mission, the gallery’s swan song is a large group exhibition called L’envol, ou le rêve de voler (A Dream of Flight), which explores an age-old fantasy, breaking gravity’s hold to touch the sky.
Last January, fans of La maison rouge were caught by surprise when founder and patron of the gallery Antoine de Galbert announced his intention to close, and for no apparent reason. “I am neither sick nor financially ruined. This is obviously what people will be saying, but no, neither my physical health nor my financial health is threatened. Everything is fine,” he told the French Le Monde. In a nonchalant statement released by the gallery he writes, “It seems better to me that we should quit while we’re ahead,” also naming a fear of becoming “entrenched” and of not being able to do better shows in the future as two factors that “go a long way” in explaining his decision.
De Galbert, a 63-year-old art collector, polymath, and bon-vivant, is one of the heirs of the French retailer Carrefour Group, where he worked for a while before dedicating all his time and money to art.
In 1987, de Galbert opened his first gallery in Grenoble, his hometown at the foot of the Alps in southeastern France. After a decade he closed the gallery to focus on growing his art collection. That was until 2003, when de Galbert found a 27,000 square-foot factory in Paris’s Bastille district and transformed the site into a vast exhibition space surrounding a house. A house he painted red.
Although fully funded by his foundation, de Galbert has never shown works from his personal collection at the gallery. The vast majority of the gallery’s 131 shows were instead drawn from private collections. The opening exhibition in 2004 was entitled Behind Closed Doors: the private life of collections. It examined the issues and questions surrounding private collections by recreating the environments in which 15 collectors kept artworks in their homes. Since then, La maison rouge has established itself as the home for Art Brut in Paris.
L’envol is the final case in point. In this show, de Galbert invites Art Brut experts: filmmaker and collector Bruno Decharme, gallerist Aline Vidal, and scholar Barbrara Safarova, to join him in curating 200 works by more than a hundred artists. The show surveys humanity’s persistent attempts at defying gravity, and in typical maison rouge fashion, the show focuses solely on failed and hapless attempts. No mention of our successes, trips to the moon, the Wright Brothers; after all, the possibility of flying an airplane hasn’t tempered our desire to fly like a bird.
The show begins with a screening of a sequence from Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), which shows a statue of Christ transported by a helicopter being followed by a cheering mob on the ground. It includes an August Rodin marble wing sculpture — one of a series he made between 1896–1912 — juxtaposed with two of his sculptures of dancers, Nijinski (1840–1917), depicting the Russian ballet dancer and choreographer Vasilav Nijinski, who was known for his gravity-defying leaps. The dancer is seen gathering momentum on one leg before leaping into the air; or as Rainer Maria Rilke — Rodin’s friend and author of the 1917 monograph Auguste Rodin — put it, “Pressing down on this center, [he] would lift himself up and share himself out into movements.” Rilke and Rodin were great admirers of Nijinski, who agreed to pose for this work.
In Aleksander Mikhailovich “Rodtchenko’s ‘A Leap’” (1934), water meets skies in the aerial acrobatics of swimmers. The Soviet propaganda photographer (who also helped found Russian constructivism) captures the mid-air somersaulting body of a Russian swimmer during a dive from a high platform; above him only sky. In two unnervingly realistic photomontages — Lucien Pelen’s “Chaise n° 5” (2005) and Yves Klein’s “Leap into the Void” (1960) — the artists appear unalarmed by their impending crash. Pelen hovers mysteriously in the air while his hands balance a floating chair over an unforgivingly rugged rocky gorge in Southern France.
Klein is frozen at the beginning of a dive from a high garden fence down onto a sidewalk. But if those pieces immortalize the moment before a catastrophe, Agnès Geoffray’s “Flying Man” (2015) slideshow follows an actual fall to its gruesome end. She does that with stills from footage of parachute pioneer Franz Reichelt’s leap to his death from the Eiffel Tower in a failed test in 1912. Geoffray’s other work, “Suspendue” (2016), shows the convulsing body of a woman hanging in the air, irresistibly recalling the famous levitation scene from Andre Tarkovsty’s film The Mirror (1975). In both, a woman’s body is lifted skywards in what resembles images associated with Christian rapture.
Another form of elevation is represented in Urs Lüthi’s comical “Selfportrait” (1976). The black and white image shows the artist seated on a “magic carpet,” crossed legged, hands in front bracing his body, looking straight at the onlooker. Here the flight happens in his head. Lüthi made the work while experimenting with LSD. Kiki Smith’s black harpy sculptures in her “Sirens” series (2007) mix myths to deliver a feminist critique by titling vulture-bodied women, known for snatching food or guarding the underworld, after the dangerously seductive sirens.
The gamut runs wide in L’envol, which bands together artists who are famous and anonymous; canonical and outcasts; genuinely deranged and unjustly institutionalized. The show continues through a multitude of winged or other heaven-bound objects and machines and ends with a model of the Russian Sputnik rocket, made by Swiss artist Francois Burland, posed in the gallery’s restaurant patio.
Like the ethos of La maison rouge itself, the show revels in its fearlessness, madness, and levity. It might also be said to be a sort of wink towards de Galbert’s own desire to spread his wings and break free from the gallery. The shuffling of genres, the disregard of value or artistic reputation, and the sense of total curatorial freedom that springs from every wall and corner of this vast space provides for a rare experience that will leave a great vacuum after it’s gone.
L’envol, ou le rêve de voler is on view at La maison rouge (10 bd de la bastille, 75012 Paris) until October 28.