Lately there has been a concurrence of exhibitions where developing an audience has been more important than merely ensuring public attendance. What has been impressive about these exhibitions is their very intimate setting which make them feel almost like a visit to a private study.
Recently the Grand Palais hosted a stunning exhibition dedicated to the work of Joan Miró curated by Jean-Louis Prat. It was delightful to see work often found in collective shows on surrealism or abstraction. The exhibition was well worth visiting since it included pieces preserved abroad and brought together for what was ultimately an astounding retrospective. Certainly, more exhibitions of this magnitude ought to be held on a regular basis, not only to prevent work from falling into obscurity but also to revisit memories distorted by time. Indeed, it is easy to forget that pieces like Photo: This is the colour of my dreams (1925), were made early in Miró’s career. It represents a kind of paradoxical synthesis his future work, a fact that became clear at the end of the visit.
This very mysterious painting, like others from Catalan, marks the dawn of his foray into surrealist abstraction which was so unique that, conceptually, it comes close to Yves Tanguy’s approach, even though the body of work for both these painters is nothing alike. It is as if Photo… provided a hint of the artistic promise that the three major rookies would majestically fulfill in … 1961! This exhibit did not focus on the usual pieces from Miró’s most well-known period, commonly shown as a series called Constellations. Such an omission is understandable given that these pieces are so widely known that they would be difficult to transport and to insure. Their absence, however, is advantageous since it decontextualizes the usual analysis that has dismissed Miró’s work (undeservedly) as being childish.
Consequently, it is abstraction and its energetic, expressive brushstrokes that are prominently featured in this retrospective. It is fascinating to witness how Miró’s focus shifted from the reality of his national culture of origin to an abstraction that proved to be a foundation of post-war American art. It’s also impressive to consider the audacity, if not the impertinence, of his decision to use materials not necessarily associated with art; for example, working with clay-coloured Masonite notable for its ability to absorb paint and colours. They reveal Miró as a fresco painter struggling to deal with the impracticality of using media that was too porous to be repainted. With splendid pieces such as these it’s unfortunate that Miró never had more of an opportunity to tackle murals like Picasso, Braque, Chagall and other painters of that generation.
On that subject, Miró is one of the “four M’s”, those musketeers including Matisse, Masson and Matta who influenced American abstract expressionism. What is remarkable at the end of the exhibition is Miró ‘s clever way of reaping the artistic seeds he had sown. If Arshile Gorky had borrowed from Masson, then the latter did look towards the great Armenian for any inspiration. It’s also unlikely that Matisse incorporated any influences from Motherwell, Rothko and their contemporaries to claim the statue of Caesar, to whom all must be rendered. In contrast, Miró’s final pieces owed more to the exuberance of the end of the 1960s, to the gestural liberation of subsequent “street art” than to the Motherwell’s Spanish requiems or to Pollock’s dripping technique. The amazing thing about how Miró reclaims “what is owed to him” is the absence of revenge or any trace of bitterness. It’s even possible to detect a hint of humour in his art, as if Master Miró gave himself permission to improve upon the work of his American disciples.
This retrospective stresses or basically reminds us that Miró was one of the most poetic painters of the 20th century. It seems somewhat clichéd to revive this old maxim: “ut pictura poesis”. Nevertheless, the walls of the labyrinth of Grand Palais are covered with Miró’s superb essays that are not so easily found in his Writings and interviews published by editor Daniel Long. Like most of the luminaries of the 20th century (Matisse, Giacometti, Léger, Masson…) Miró was also a writer. We must remember: what is brilliantly painted is clearly stated!
Yet more than anything else it is the very nature of Miró’s painting that is poetic. His brush strokes–sudden splashes of liquid colours—the inadvertent peacefulness that enables him to leave empty spaces on the canvas, the impudence of his titles combined with his mysterious yet colourful arrangements, the erotic insolence that arises from his spontaneous impulses, the boldness that drives him to abuse the media of his colourful traces, make Miró an essential poet whose cursive style born of his movements helped to create a style of writing that remains unparalleled.
While the Miró exhibition was taking place, a contemporary artist, Jean-Michel Alberola, was taking on the role of curator. Rather than acquiring an audience, he strived to develop attendance represented by a “meeting of friends”. With that in mind, a small exhibition entitled Cosmos 1939 : Georges Salles/Walter Benjamin is being held from October 2018 to March 1, 2019 at Centre Dominique-Vivant Denon. Entrance to the exhibit is through the Arts Gate of the Louvre, a door that also leads to the exquisite Square Courtyard. Alberola took on the task of bringing together the 53 books that philosopher Walter Benjamin, while visiting Paris in 1939, would have consulted, including Le Regard by Georges Salles, Asian art curator. The latter book (still fascinating today) set him apart as a philosopher because he questioned the hypothesis of his canonic text, The work of art at the time of its reproducibility. The 53 books that Benjamin read led to the lithographical reproduction of their covers. These ordinary books, have since become valuable artefacts and, under the philosopher’s influence, have bestowed upon him a renewed aura of importance.
The study room of the Centre Dominique Vivant-Denon where Walter Benjamin had worked has a small adjacent office in which Alberola assembled the original books in an (antique!) display, as well as copies laminated by the philosopher, consequently refining an emotional fetishism. Finally, Alberola painted strips of paper soaked in green turquoise (possibly celadon), only marked with a small star and two sentences painted by Benjamin himself.
Gaining access to this exhibition requires presenting identification to a museum security guard in the lobby and then taking an elevator to the second floor. Visitors would be accompanied by Françoise Mardus, the director of the Centre Vivant-Denon (co-ordinator/manager of this initiative), and Françoise Dalex (manager of the Resource Centre) in the company of Alberola. Visits, in silent contemplation are limited to a simple tour of a large reading. Yet a few minutes in the presence of these books, worth entire hours spent in other overly lavish major exhibits, prompted visitors to think as much as see. In such a small space, Alberola in his role as exhibition curator, delighted privileged visitors with a luxurious reception: the availability of organizers allowed for a most memorable photo shoot.
Yet what does the discrepancy between the sumptuous and democratic Miro exhibition and Alberola’s sensitive, secretly autobiographic offering indicate? The answer may never be known but what is certain is that they are both essential.
There are a few other recent Parisian shows could be included in this trend towards intimate exhibitions: the mischievous yet brilliant Annette Messager at the Giacometti Foundation and Gustave Moreau’s (at the museum bearing his name) work with abstraction. These two last exhibits have the particular feature of making visitors feel like they have broken into someone’s house. The Giacometti Foundation, although not the sculptor’s home, is not too far from where he lives in the Montparnasse district, and Gustave Moreau’s pieces are shown in the studio where he taught his students (including modern masters like Matisse). These exhibitions also have the delightful illusory power to transform the visitor, for a small fee, into a collector.
This column is intended to pay homage, in the order of their appearance on the scene, to Jean-Louis Prat, Jean-Michel Aberola, the Louvre’s two Françoises (Dalex and Mardus), Catherine Grenier and her Giacomettian team, Annette Messager and Marie-Cécile Forest, director of the Gustave Moreau Museum.