MONTSOREAU, France — Of the over 1,000 châteaux studding France’s Loire Valley, some are still in private hands, while others have been taken over by the local authorities and filled with interactive displays and period-costumed waxworks for the benefit of tourists in pursuit of some local history. There is, however, an exception. For the last few years, the Château de Montsoreau, located at the confluence of the Loire and Vienne rivers, has been home to one of the most significant museums of contemporary art outside of Paris.
The Château de Montsoreau-Museum of Contemporary Art is dedicated not just to contemporary art, but, more specifically, to conceptual art. And, even more specifically, to works by the collective Art & Language. The Art & Language movement began in the 1960s and continues to this day. At its peak in the 1980s it encompassed over 50 proponents. Nowadays, it’s represented by just two: Mel Ramsden and Michael Baldwin. Their names are unimportant, though, as all works by members of the Art & Language collective are unsigned.
Art & Language works are not attributed to individual artists because the movement’s central tenet is to interrogate what “art” and, by extension, what an “artist” is. This question is posited again and again, in their theoretical writings, paintings, installations, and, in one case, in a satirical opera, written in 1983 and performed at the 2012 Whitney Biennial. The protagonist of Victorine is the detective Inspector Denis who, unable to distinguish realist art from reality, attempts to investigate the murders of dead women he has seen in paintings by Manet and Courbet. In a text published a decade after the libretto, Art & Language write: “Is it possible that he is not so much an incompetent viewer as a subversive one?” What, in other words, is the right way to look at a work of art?
Art & Language has often taken aim at famous artists from art history. A work from 1980 titled “Study for Guernica in the Style of Jackson Pollock” merges the styles of Picasso and Pollock, ridiculing the idea of individuality and authenticity in art. Another work from the same year — “Portrait of V.I. Lenin with Cap, in the Style of Jackson Pollock III” — is an image of the Communist leader completely submerged in gestural, expressive brushstrokes, highlighting the political and artistic gulf between Soviet Socialist Realism and American Abstract Expressionism. Whatever the message of the works, the tone is always tongue-in-cheek. Sometimes the paintbrush is in cheek too: some of the group’s recent works, such as “Sculpture” and “Still Life” (both 2009), were “painted by mouth” (as one Art & Language title puts it).
As well as parodying works of art, the artists of Art & Language recreate objects from everyday life, but make them nonsensical. One example of this is their map series, created over the course of six decades. There’s the “Map of a Thirty-Six Square Mile Surface Area of the Pacific Ocean West of Oahu” (1967), in fact, just an empty square; the “Map of Itself” (1967), a large square divided into a grid of smaller squares; and the “Map to Indicate Countries According to Development of an Everyday Critique of False Universals” (2002) — try and work that one out. In works by Art & Language, both art and language become abstracted.
For the past couple of decades, the art collector Philippe Méaille has been voraciously acquiring works by Art & Language. Now aged 46, he owns the world’s largest collection — over 1,000 pieces in total — beating out both the Tate and Getty Research Institute. For several years Méaille’s works were on loan to the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art, until late 2015, when the collector began discussions with the Maine-et-Loire council about converting the Château de Montsoreau (which had been filled with a sound-and-light installation for the previous 14 years) into an art museum.
Montsoreau locals barely had time to protest the idea, as just a few months later the museum opened its door. The château’s dozen or so rooms are now filled with works from Méaille’s collection on rotation, while the top floor is dedicated to temporary exhibitions (currently one on Swiss conceptual artist Roman Signer). The museum’s team is small, comprised of Méaille himself, his co-director Marie-Caroline Chaudruc, the conservator-cum-handyman-cum-waiter Jean-Michel Fontaine, and some part-time and seasonal staff.
The château itself, with its white limestone walls, stained-glass lattice windows, and Disneyland turrets, dates back to the Renaissance. Inspired by Venetian architecture, it was built directly on the riverbed of the Loire river and still dominates the town of Montsoreau, which slowly grew up around it, and now has a population of around 400 people, mostly retired. The château also has strong literary significance: it was the setting for Alexandre Dumas père’s 1846 novel La Dame de Montsoreau, and it appears in the writings of François Rabelais and Gustave Flaubert.
It’s mostly for this history, rather than for conceptual art, that the château is frequented by tourists — predominantly Dutch cyclists following the “La Loire à Vélo” bike trail, but also other vacationers from around the world. Some are disappointed by what they find, but others emerge converted to the cause of Conceptual Art. Either way, no one leaves apathetic, as I am told by Pierre, one of this season’s interns. Increasingly, however, the museum is becoming a pilgrimage destination for devotees of Art & Language; last year it attracted over 50,000 visitors.
Artworks are displayed not just inside, but also outside the château. Carved into the gravel of the château’s stately courtyard are the words “A Bad Place.” Characteristic of much of Art & Language’s work, it’s an elusive piece — partly because you can only see the words fully from an aerial vantage point, partly because the phrase is untranslatable into French (a literal translation — un mauvais endroit — is closer to “the wrong place”). And partly because, in its setting, it is deeply ironic. Far from being a “bad place,” the Château de Montsoreau-Museum of Contemporary Art is radical, unique, and completely charming.
The Château de Montsoreau-Museum of Contemporary Art is located at Passage du marquis de Geoffre, Montsoreau, France. Roman Signer continues through November 6.