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Pretentious, narcissist, and intellectually light-weight or brilliant philosopher? Bernard-Henri Levy at St Paul de Vence.

The Fondation Maeght in St Paul de Vence has taken a different approach to its summer exhibition this year.  Instead of usual retrospective on an artist or a movement, this year it is the turn of philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy to put together an exhibition that illustrates his ideas about art and philosophy.  Always a risky strategy, the result is nothing short of a catastrophe.  M Levy (known as BHL) is a controversial figure, considered by many to be pretentious, narcissist, and intellectually light-weight. The kindest thing that can be said about this exhibition is that it does nothing to dispel any of these images.

First, let’s focus on the positives: the Fondation Maeght is a beautiful gallery, set in lovely grounds. It’s impossible not to be impressed by this wonderful place. And then let’s make it clear that BHL has brought together some famous and some unknown artworks that are beautiful, thought-provoking, and sometimes quite startling in the way he pits different eras next to each other. Indeed BHL is the first person to put together a Maeght exhibition that includes art that dates back before the “Modern” period.

His room dedicated to the legend of St Veronica and the Veil, for example, is a fine assembly of beautiful renaissance images, together with more modern images of veils and women.  By staying focused on one theme, BHL manages to create intensity here in the room that he unfortunately never recaptures in the rest of the exhibition. Although even here, his premise that artists used the Veronica legend as a way of reclaiming the high ground in a fight with philosophy is patently ridiculous.

For the most part this is a horrible mess of images that have little or no link to each other, or that are simply in the exhibition because they happen to be paintings of philosophers. 

We begin in a room with the theme of the “Cave of Shadows” – a reference to Plato and the idea that what we take to be real may in fact be an illusion, shadows projected in distortion across the walls.  And so we get some blurry, shadowy paintings, a few representations of the Platonic Cave, and finally a sculpture of the cave of shadows, complete with bats flying around it.  (I am not joking.)  So far so good, a philosopher’s thoughts on art and some art that seems to illustrate it.

But as BHL’s ideas evolve, so the exhibition unravels and becomes a rag-bag of half-baked ideas, and of comparisons and contrasts for their own sake.  Of course we need to recall that BHL’s target audience is principally French, and philosophy is a subject everyone takes in High School. But even allowing for this cultural difference, BHL’s assumption that art is in constant struggle with philosophy is preposterous. Frankly, BHL, it’s more likely that most artists couldn’t give a damn about philosophy.

The texts pasted to the walls at the entrance of each room are bafflingly vacuous.  Even when they make any sense they seem hideously deluded in their assumption that the artists of the world are constantly struggling with philosophy. For example, the opening panel states: “the question of the battle between a philosophy whose first desires were to ban from the City artists automatically rejected to the side of the shadow or the simulacrum and between painting that quickly resisted, counter-attacked, even challenged the philosophy of the very territory where it reigned, this question remains unclear and concerns us here."

It’s unclear because it’s not a real question – we don’t have such a battle, and the rest of the exhibition spirals out of control in BHL’s attempts to follow themes from Descartes, Hegel, Nietzsche – it’s a veritable Wikipedia of images and philosophers – a quick google search on Hegel in art brings up “Hegel’s Vacation” by Magritte – so that one is included. Seriously, it’s that bad.

But if you can ignore BHL and just take some of the fun of Warhol, or the beauty of Juan Gris, the rarely seen and great Rothko, or the majesty of the Bronzini or the Titian, you can surely find something in this exhibition that will delight you.

“Adventures of truth” - Painting and philosophy: a narrative from 29 June to 11 November 2013 is at the Fondation Maeght, St Paul de Vence,

Open every day, without exception:

October-June: 10 am - 6 pm

July-September: 10 am - 7 pm
The ticket office closes 30 minutes before closing time.

 

 

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