Review by Joseph Nechvatal of “Adventures of truth” – Painting and philosophy: a narrative (« Les aventures de la vérité » – Peinture et philosophie : un récit)
Curated by Bernard-Henri Lévy
From June 29th to November 11th, 2013
at the Fondation Maeght in Saint-Paul de Vence, France
A reduced version of this paper has been published here as
Painting and Philosophy: An Assessment
Like philosophy, art exceeds lived experience by creating an approach to chaotic virtuality.
-Tamsin Lorraine, Irigaray and Deleuze: Experiments in Visceral Philosophy
Concerning abstract painting, one is tempted to say (…) it has pure hands, but it doesn’t have hands.
– Gilles Deleuze, La logique de la sensation
The very idea of philosopher as art curator deeply interests me. One swiftly dreams of what Gilles Deleuze might have done with the opportunity to curate an art exhibition at MoMA: Art and Alloverness perhaps? Or Michel Foucault: the New Panopticons at the Centre Georges Pompidou? What would Susan Sontag or Roland Barthes have done at the International Center of Photography or at the Tate? What could Friedrich Nietzsche have done at the Louvre Museum? What indeed could Georges Bataille have haughtily done at the Metropolitan Museum of Art?
To be sure we have already noticed what Jean-François Lyotard prepared at the Pompidou (with Thierry Chaput): Les Immatériaux (1985), Paul Virilio’s curatorial forays at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain: La Vitesse (1991), Un monde réel (1999), The Desert (2000), and Unknown Quantity (2002) and Christine Buci-Glucksmann (who advised me to see this show) has been practicing art curatorial activities on occasion. I have seen or heard Alain Badiou, Graham Harman, Simon Critchley and Michel Onfray speak on art’s philosophic aspects. Arthur Danto’s graduate philosophy seminar on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and Andy Warhol’s Brill Boxes at Columbia University was influential on my development as an artist. Clearly, the most audaciously successful art show I have SEEN by a thinker/philosopher (yes John Cage counts here) was Rolywholyover: A Composition for Museum by John Cage at the Guggenheim Museum in Soho (NYC) in 1994.
And one might, such as I do, curiously wonder what such a fertile opportunity would yield from some of our current compelling contemporary philosophers given this opportunity, such as Catherine Malabou, Nick Land, Jacques Ranciere, Peter Osborne, McKenzie Wark, Babette Babich, Tom Cohen, Quentin Meillassoux, Judith Butler, Simon Critchley, Eugene Thacker, Graham Harman, Slavoj Zizek, Julia Kristeva, Adrian Johnston, Ray Brassier and many others.
Still vibrating with this fuzzy and dreamy indulgence, let us now turn to the “truth” of the matter. With admirable aplomb, Bernard-Henri Lévy (considered to be one of France’s most influential intellectuals (read pop philosopher) – if not its most innovative) has curated a sumptuous art exhibition entitled “Adventures of truth” – Painting and philosophy: a narrative at Olivier Kaeppelin’s Maeght Foundation in Saint-Paul-de-Vence (inaugurated in 1964 by dealer Aimé Maeght). I found it artistically exciting, but I was somewhat ambivalent, and thus disappointed from a discursive standpoint, concerning its philosophical aspects. In this classic modernist-based exhibition, Lévy posed the question of whether and when philosophy or painting triumph over each other, beginning with Plato’s banning of art from his ideal Republic. Dip in the Braque pool, anyone? Stroll in the Miró labyrinth?
Lévy, known in France by the acronym BHL, co-founded the New Philosophers movement in France (which broke with Marxist utopianism – see his La Barbarie à Visage Humain from 1977). He has often traveled to regions of crisis and has at times urged military intervention against human rights abuses. He has been an unremitting supporter of military action against totalitarian regimes in Bosnia, Darfur, Libya and, most recently, Syria. His account of the murder of journalist Daniel Pearl has been generally proclaimed. For all that he has already earned my unruffled respect.
Lévy also exhibits considerable taste in his selection of work – both French and international, old and contemporary – for “Adventures of truth” (the scare quotes seem appropriate, as you will soon read) but has of yet not greatly interested me as a philosopher. This show of taste was conspicuously lacking in his first foray into artistic activity as film director of Le Jour et la Nuit (1977) – considered “the worst French film in decades” by Cahiers du cinéma and possibly the “worst film in history” by the French version of Slate (my regrets to John Waters).
Philosophically, Lévy seems overly involved with political ethics for my taste and under engaged with recent developments in philosophy proper, such as Speculative Realism, Speculative Materialism, Object-oriented philosophy, Transcendental Materialism, Neo-Vitalism, Transcendental Nihilism, or Methodological Naturalism. But I am patient with him.
For this show (and it is a show in every sense of the word), Lévy stages the (supposed) age-old skirmish between philosophy and painting, presenting it as sometimes rivals, sometimes allies. The central idea behind “Adventures of truth” was to interrogate the question of knowing how philosophy helps or hinders painting or, by contrast, how painting prolongs, revives or silences philosophy. It concluded with the less than earthmoving conclusion that they indeed aid each other, as I know they do. This dialectical ride only works if we at first beat a dead horse: Plato.
As we know, according to Plato, all artistic creation is a form of imitation. That which truly exists (in the “world of ideas”) is a type created by God; the concrete things man perceives in his existence are shadowy representations of this ideal type. Therefore, the painter imitates an imitation, twice removed from the truth: a simulacrum of a simulacrum.
This exhibition, which in truth offers more in the way of hype (Can we tell truth from fiction, fact from representation?) than in “truth” (but so what), develops a narrative/simulacra/journey in seven sequences: The Fate of the shadows, Coup d’état technique, The Royal Way, Counter-Being, Philosophy’s tomb, Revenge of Plato and Plastemes and philosophemes. If that sounds rather melodramatic; it is. However the opportunity to see some superb work fighting it out amongst themselves in this or any context counterbalances any top-heavy curatorial philo-concepts encountered. I drooled over many works from the Marguerite and Aimé Maeght Foundation’s holdings (and the Maeght family’s collection) and from many other museum and private collections. Bravo Monsieur Lévy.
Andy Warhol, Studies of Jackie, 1964. Acrylique et sérigraphie sur papier marouflé sur toile, 242 x 153 cm. Galerie Beaubourg. Marianne et Pierre Nahon © Photo Claude Germain. The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Adagp, Paris, 2013
Agnolo di Cosimo, dit le Bronzino, Crucifixion, c. 1540. Huile sur panneau de bois, 145 x 115 cm. Collection de Musée des Beaux-Arts Jules Chéret, Nice © Ville de Nice, photo Muriel Anssens
I savored the back and forth between ancient, modern and contemporary art: for example that between a small Pierre Bonnard painting of a nude bathing woman (Nu somber from 1941-46) and a grand Andy Warhol’s Jackie Onassis piece Studies of Jackie from 1964 on soiled paper. There were masterworks there, such as Crucifixion from 1540 by the great Bronzino (Agnolo di Cosimo), Pierre Klossowski’s two large drawings, Alexej von Jawlensky (Saviour’s face: Dolorosa from 1920), Francis Picabia (Mélibée from 1931, for one), Cosmè Tura (from Venice’s Museo Correr a wonderful Pietà from 1460), tasty small collages by Kurt Schwitters, a Henri Matisse drawing Bénédiction à Baudelaire, Philippe de Champaigne (a vanitas), Francis Bacon (Head: Man in Blue from 1961), a 1911 painting by Marcel Duchamp (Steeple-chase), Franz Kline (Bethlehem from 1954), a painting of St. Veronica receiving the mark of Christ’s face on her veil by an anonymous 15th-century Flemish artist, and the ultimate Sol LeWitt. These are things that made me feel fine – art that helped me see a vibrant future. Unfortunately, I missed the Lucas Cranach masterpiece Adam and Eve (1526) that so inspired philosopher Georges Bataille as it had been returned (the show was extended to November 11th – past its original end date). Also missing from the show when I saw it the last day of September was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s graffiti cross Crisis X from 1982 (an image used to promote the show).
Philippe de Champaigne, Vanité, première moitié du XVIIe. Huile sur bois, 28 x 37 cm. Musée de Tessé, Le Mans © Photo Musée du Mans
Marcel Duchamp, La piste de chevaux ou steeplechase, 1910-11
Cosmè Tura, Pietà, vers 1460. Tempera et huile sur panneau de bois 47,7 x 33,5 cm. Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia, Museo Correr © Archivio Fotografica – Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia
Other rather excellent work I found there, sorrowfully cramped in the often off-kilter and overstuffed installation, were anatomical studies by 18th Century master Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and Peter Paul Rubens from 1606, a nice Pablo Picasso Torso de Femme, and pieces by René Magritte (Les vacances de Hegel – that depicts a glass of water balancing on an umbrella from 1958), Robert Filliou, Lucio Fontana (Concetto Spaziale, La fine di Dio from 1963), Joseph Beuys (Fettfleck drawing from 1957), Jasper Johns’s portrait of Marcel Duchamp, Reyer Jacobsz van Blommendael, André Breton (Nadja), a bevy of Dada manifestos, the groovy Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven’s portrait of Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Léger (Contrastes de forme from 1913), Paul Chenavard, Valerio Adami (Portrait de Jacques Derrida), Jackson Pollock (Crucifixion from 1939-40) and Paul Delvaux (a symposium of skeletons in a library called Waiting for the Liberation from 1944). I enjoyed the Dinos and Jake Chapman (a labor-intensive hell called Upstairs and Downstairs), a fascinating Barnett Newman (Genetic Moment from 1947), Yves Klein (Portrait-relief de Claude Pascal from 1962), Gérard Garouste (Les libraires aveugles from 2005 where two blind men follow a donkey loaded with books) and Jacques Martinez (a car crash sculpture piled into a solid pillar of white books called Triomphe de la philosophie). There is also a nice Bernar Venet math painting, Joan Miró (Les Philosophes I et II from 1956), Wassily Kandinsky (an early symbolist series), Huang Yong Ping (his grotto Plato’s Cave) and a poorly installed Joseph Kosuth (a tip of the hat to Kosuth’s 1969 manifesto Art after Philosophy where he posed that philosophical systems of knowledge are finished, and its place must be occupied by the artist). All this very different art encircled each other in often vague but splendid ways.
A key painting here is La Datcha, a group portrait of various Post-structuralist French philosophers at sunset that ridicules their philosophical pretensions. It was painted in 1969 collaboratively by five artist-satirists (Gilles Aillaud, Francis Biras, Lucio Fanti, Fabio Rieti and Eduardo Arroyo) in pseudo-Soviet Realist style. The painting wickedly satires a ghostly Louis Althusser (Bernard-Henri Lévy’s professor) but it also lampoons Jacques Lacan, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Michel Foucault (stroking his head as a sign of endless and pointless meditation) and Roland Barthes (portrayed playing waiter, bringing in a tray of petit fours to the group).
Gilles Aillaud / Eduardo Arroyo / Francis Biras / Lucio Fanti / Fabio Rieti / Nicky Rieti, La Datcha, 1969. Huile sur toile, 225 x 425 cm. Collection particulière © Photo Amando Casado/ Adagp, Paris 2013
Gérard Garouste, Les libraires aveugles, 2005. Huile sur toile, 270 x 320 cm. FNAC 06-044 Centre National des arts plastiques © Adagp / CNAP /photo : Paris, Galerie Daniel Templon.
René Magritte, Les vacances de Hegel, 1959. Huile sur toile, 60 x 50 cm. Collection de M. et Mme Wilbur Ross © Adagp, Paris 2013
Yves Klein, Portrait-relief de Claude Pascal (PR3), 1962. Pigment pur, résine synthétique et bronze sur panneau doré, 174 x 94 cm. Collection privée en dépôt au MAMAC, Nice. © Yves Klein / Adagp, Paris 2013
The worse part of the show was a series of short videos, directed and shot by Lévy, where we see contemporary artists (including Marina Abramovic, Miquel Barceló, Olafur Eliasson, Alexandre Singh, Huang Yong Ping, Jacques Monory, Anselm Kiefer, Gérard Garouste, Kehinde Wiley, Maurizio Cattelan, Zeng Fanzhi and Enrico Castellani) reading a page of philosophy (Plato, Hegel, Schelling, Heidegger etc.). But these were placed outdoors on the terrace and could be easily avoided by looking down on the Miró labyrinth or leaving the terrace.
Perhaps it is obvious that the playful Lévy here returns us to a (rather grand, if cheeky) formal narrative structure while indulging in a deeply subjective narrative. I read this philosophical fold back from post-structural rhizomatic thinking into modernist subjectivity ground on Lévy’s part as refreshingly audacious. Indeed the man has chutzpah and is unafraid of exhibiting his naïveté, as he flagrantly does in some of his simplistic notes in the English exhibition guide brochure. For example: On Paul Klee’s Group of Masks from 1939 he writes, “Klee does not owe us truth in painting – he gives it to us.” Truly?