There is almost no excuse to miss the yearly-awaited summer exhibition of the Fondation Maeght. It is in the picturesque village of Saint Paul de Vence and has been curated by Bernard Henri Levy known by all as BHL. The writer and philosopher is a controversial French figure who has been given carte blanche by the new director of the foundation, Olivier Kaeppelin. A guaranteed buzz? An instant blockbuster thanks to a bankable character? These questions are partly answered to by the staggering number of interviews of the curator that have been published to date showing not only his prominence but also the curiosity his undertaking has arisen.
The title is translated as “Adventures of truth – Painting and philosophy: a narrative”. The Truth might have gone through heroic escapades and performed astonishing miracles. It is however another meaning of the word aventures that comes to mind throughout the exhibition. In French, a love affair may be called as such and BHL has constructed the exhibition into seven sequences underlining the love and hate relationship between philosophy and art since the Middle Ages. A summer fling with a happy ending?
Built over two years, the exhibition gathers an impressive 126 artworks. To make this selection, BHL met with numerous artists, art dealers and collectors, encounters that gave birth to a 400-page long catalogue that does explain in details the concept that is governing the show.
Contemporary installations stand along medieval artworks creating jaw dropping juxtapositions. For instance, in the first sequence entitled The Fate of the Shadows, BHL explores the fight against illusionism imposed by the Plato’s cave allegory upon the arts. This struggle is represented by artists as varied as Grayson Perry, André Derain, Tatiana Trouvé, Pierre Klossowski or Mike Kelley. In the second sequence the image becomes saint and gains legitimacy thanks to Saint Veronica represented in turn by an anonymous XVth century painter, Francis Picabia, Antoni Tàpies or in 2013 by Pierre & Gilles.
At this point of the exhibition the excitement of the visitor is genuine. The concept is ambitious, innovative and challenging. However, as the exhibition goes on, the choice of works becomes questionable and further explanation would have been welcomed. Art and philosophy keep on taking turn in the lead for the world’s interpretation. Art undertakes to reveal its hidden secrets before Nietzsche suggests that it should be reinvented. One has to get to the 7th sequence to witness the collaboration between art and philosophy. The appeasement comes as the conclusion of the exhibition.
The fight between the disciplines ends up appearing like an excuse since themes are recurrent over centuries. For instance, was Garouste’s Veronique necessary to illustrate the point or was it present because of its title? The confrontations are not always visually successful. A Mark Rothko is hidden by the monumental Thomas Schütte’s installation it shares the space with. A Lucio Fontana is tarnished by the blue light casted on it by the Miro’ window. Soulages may have benefited from being represented by a more powerful artwork…
Was two year enough for such an ambitious project? Would the narrative has benefited from a fiercer selection? Most importantly, is there really a beginning or an end or even boundaries to such a concept? These questions come as a reminder that the exhibition has been curated by a philosopher. It is therefore without surprise that its visual impact is not as grand as its concept. It does trigger however a vertiginous amount of questions in line with Bernard Henri Levy’s position: philosophy is a tool to explore the world we live in.
Les aventures de la vérité – Peinture et philosophie : un récit, Fondation Maeght, until November 11th, 2013
Text and Images by Reine Okuliar
In French: Valerie Duponchelle for Le Figaro
In English: Jackie Wullschlager for the Financial Times