Can France’s most flamboyant philosopher save France’s most celebrated modern art museum? In any other country, such an experiment would never even be tested – which is reason enough to visit Les aventures de la vérité – Peinture et philosophie: un récit, this summer’s startling, original show at the Fondation Maeght, for which the philosopher, writer and journalist Bernard-Henri Lévy takes on a new role as curator.
The Fondation, inaugurated in 1964 by dealer Aimé Maeght in the pine-clad hills of Saint-Paul-de-Vence above Nice and featuring a Braque pool, a Giacometti courtyard and a Miró labyrinth, has long been a temple to modern art. Still family-run, it has recently lost verve: Maeght’s grandchildren have publicly fallen out, exhibitions have been weak. In the 21st century, as modernism becomes historic, it is seeking a sexier image.
Enter “BHL”, celebrity intellectual, often mocked for his vanity with epithets such as “God is dead but my hair is perfect” but impeccably connected in the art world (collector François Pinault is a close friend). BHL has flooded the Maeght with contemporary work: Subodh Gupta’s hideous monumental bronze Mona Lisa “Et tu, Duchamp?” among the delicate Giacomettis; a new version of “Hell” modelled by the Chapman brothers, “Upstairs and Downstairs” (2013), opposite a shimmering, earnest Rothko; Huang Yong Ping’s vast resin grotto “Plato’s Cave” (2009) and a Grayson Perry pot boxing in the lilting abstracted forms of Miró’s painting “Les Philosophes”.
BHL ridicules not only the pieties of art history but also philosophy’s pretensions. A star piece is “La Datcha”, a painting depicting a twilit 1960s interior, complete with an ethnologist’s trophy primitive mask, where a quintet of poseurs retreat from the world; it is inscribed “Louis Althusser hésitant à entrer dans la datcha tristes miels de Claude Levi-Strauss où sont réunis Jacques Lacan Michel Foucault et Roland Barthes au moment où la radio annonce que les ouvriers et les étudiants ont décidé d’abandonner joyeusement leur passé.” The philosophes on the fence, occupied with their own smug mental games while the 1968 protests rage among students and workers, are a perfect target for BHL, who has always been fiercely politically engaged.
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