The Pompidou Centre in Paris is celebrating its 20th anniversary with an ambitious exhibition on the relationship between 20th century politics and art. Matthew Reisz is impressedby Matthew Reisz / April 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
The pompidou centre’s Face ? l’Histoire (1933-1996), assembles 450 works by some 200 artists-from Klee to Kollwitz, Moore to Magritte, Kokoschka to Warhol-and invites us to look at them politically. It is a dizzyingly ambitious exhibition.
The long central corridor starts with Soviet propaganda posters and images of Nazi athleticism giving way to magazines such as Life, Picture Post and Paris Match to sketch in the historical background. Branching off are rooms with paintings and sculptures grouped chronologically and thematically.
Such a layout inevitably places the stress on how different artists responded to the same external events. Yet the curators are careful to challenge simplistic political readings. The first room contains some dreary pieces of Italian fascist kitsch and The Demons, a painting by Franz Radziwell which depicts a dead Nazi and two hanged figures in front of a rundown house. When originally created in 1933-34, it seems to have been intended as a homage to German heroism and self-sacrifice; after the war, however, it was retouched to become an image of resistance.
Another room on “Abstraction et Histoire” raises such issues even more forcefully. It brings together Robert Motherwell’s superb Elegy to the Spanish Republic, a series of luminous red, blue and yellow bars blotted out by great black slabs; Mir?’s delicate series inspired by the execution of a Catalan anarchist in 1974; and royalist Georges Mathieu’s depiction, like an oriental calligraph, of The Excommunication of King Peter of Aragon. Nobody could possibly guess the subject matter from the pictures themselves, so how seriously can we take their implicit claim to be political statements? On the other hand, works which are too specific soon cease to have much resonance. The exhibition goes soft in the middle, precisely because so much of the radical art of the Vietnam era has such a clear and obvious message.
Much of the exhibition is inevitably concerned with resistance. Early rooms illuminate the many ways artists resisted fascism, or expressed solidarity with its victims. The Spanish civil war inspired the hitherto playful surrealists to create images of cataclysm: Picasso always returned to the theme of the weeping woman, Grosz put Christ in a gas mask and Chagall created a White Crucifixion. Yet along with scenes from the camps, we find painters who “resisted” solely by refusing to submit to Nazi aesthetic norms, as in Otto Freundlich’s dazzling My Sky is Red or Beckmann’s Departure triptych juxtaposing images of persecution with a blue vision of hope.
Face ? l’Histoire is split between two floors, with the larger first floor taking the story up to 1979. After images of postwar devastation come rooms looking at graffiti; pop art’s use of flags, maps and political figures; the end of colonialism; the deconstruction of political and advertising imagery by conceptual artists; and ironic post-modern attempts to reassess traditional styles. Much of this is concerned with cultural and media politics rather than mainstream political debate, although the enigmatic installations brought toge-ther as L’objet politique-Joseph Beuys’s case containing a broom and sweepings from the Karl-Marx-Platz, Antonio T? pies’s bloody handkerchief, Luis Camnitzer’s 80 boxes of “leftovers,” which also seem to be dripping blood-are all haunting.
The final section, covering 1980 to 1996, starts with a gigantic revolver and largely consists of cool, attractive and rather enigmatic works which gradually become menacing. Krzysztof Wodiczko’s amusing Vehicle-Podium is a lectern on wheels which moves forward at a speed determined by the level of the speaker’s voice, while Allan Sekula’s photographic War without Bodies shows a father and small son examining the weaponry at a Gulf war victory ceremony. Most striking of all are Adrian Piper’s series of Vanilla Nightmares, where crude images of black savagery and sexual threat have been drawn onto pages of The New York Times dealing with South Africa.
By placing alongside each other new and familiar paintings, the established and the boldly experimental, the esoteric and the crudely propagandist, the Pompidou Centre’s 20th anniversary exhibition-despite moments of pretentiousness-does justice to its immense subject. Face a l’histoire
Pompidou Centre, Paris
Until 7th April