Friday, 24 April 2015

Keys to a passion: Fondation Louis Vuitton

One of the reasons we went to Paris was to see the Fondation Louis Vuitton and its new Frank Gehry Building. We were fascinated by the building, as everyone else has been. I loved that Gehry has truly separated the “sails” that cover the building from its actual structure, that there are many levels under those sails to explore outdoors, and that the galleries indoors are rectangular with straight vertical walls. I also like the sculptural shape of the interior structure as you see it from outside, contradicting the regularity of the interior spaces. I could not photograph it from above or the long side, so what I can offer are details of the complexity of the structure.

The building structure makes some sense, it seems almost infinitely varied, and it is possible to install most kinds of art appropriately in the galleries. A couple of the galleries have wonderful high skylights, where sunlight can enter but is unlikely to hit works of art directly.

We explored the building and its permanent collection exhibits – a quirky variety of generations and media. A video by Akram Zaatari, Tomorrow Everything will be Alright, 2010 seemed familiar and we realized that we had seen it two years ago at the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo (MUAC) in Mexico City. Given the political nature of much of his work, choosing this one for a collection seems a bit eccentric, although its gay theme and easy accessibility, at least to an English reader, may be considerable assets. Giacometti and Ellsworth Kelly among artists I find more difficult: Isa Genzken, Annette Messager, and other contemporaries - Maurizio Cattelan, Thomas Schutte, Adrian Villar Rojas.
Wandering downstairs, partly intending to get a closer look at the water feature, we found the exhibition, Keys to a passion, which coincidentally had opened the day before. This exhibition has already been widely discussed just because of the rarity and high value of the loans, important treasures from major international museums. The atrium was set up for crowds, but there were very few people. Guides handed us a booklet of all the exhibition labels in English, a wonderful asset that enables one to read the label and look at the art at the same time, without having to wait for the nearsighted person or people in front to finish. And you can re-read them later.
It took us a while to realize how stunning the exhibition is. Organized on four disparate and inconsistent themes: subjective expressionism, contemplative, Popist (as in Pop, not the Pope), and music, the works, about 60 objects by 29 artists, are generously spaced in six rooms. The guide says they "established the foundations of modernity.... By breaking rules, these irreducibly singular works have become touchstones in the history of art." Well, I think maybe some of them more than others, although each object merits the substantial examination and contemplation the organizers hope for.
Indeed the works are masterpieces, but perhaps because we had no publicity to set us up for it, we didn't feel like we were in a textbook of masterpieces. Not everything was completely familiar and I was most taken by Nolde, Hodler and Mondrian landscapes, a Malevich figure, a gorgeous red Rothko, and the two Franz Kupkas. Of course, the Kandinskys from the Edward R. Campbell atrium, Matisse's Dance, and the Munch Scream were obviously major loans. And, finally I wondered, and still wonder, how the curators chose works by three other artists. First were five self-portraits by the wonderful Finnish artist Helene Schjerfbeck, whose major retrospective we saw in Helsinki three years ago. They are stunning and hold their own with the Munch and Otto Dix's Portrait of the Dancer Anita Berber, 1925 (Tom's favorite) nearby. But her expressionism without any of the standard Germans seems a bit odd.
Similarly, in the "contemplative" section, near the Noldes and Mondrians were four very similar paintings of Lake Keitele by the Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela. I was engaged by the slight variations in the stylized interpretations of this series, impressed that the four paintings had been brought together from at least three disparate collections, and curious as to what inspired these particular works to join the exhibition, especially since they are quite uncharacteristic of his oeuvre, which we had the chance to see in a major exhibition in Dusseldorf in 2012. Perhaps the Vuitton curator made the same rounds we did of Finnish artists in 2012. And I wondered if the artist was continuing to work out a composition, as the label suggests, or if he found a popular subject and was repeating it for additional sales. The paintings certainly fit into the context of the room, but seem unlikely as foundation works for later art, especially when one of them was acquired by the National Gallery in London only in 1999 and become "iconic" only since then.
Then, in the section titled "Popist," which I initially believed must have to do with the Catholic religion, I was rather puzzled at Robert Delauney's inclusion, since I think of him more for his abstraction and color than for his popular subjects. But the real amusement came from Francis Picabia's cavorting naked women with dogs that seemed to come from exactly the same girlie aesthetic as the Jeff Koons paintings I had rather dismissed the day before. These Picabias were as unlikely in their present company as the Finnish artists in theirs, and again I wondered what the curatorial impetus was for including them as sources of the "Pop" in modern art. They are also quite different from most of Picabia's work, as is evident if you search Picabia images.
So I am curious and puzzled by some of the curatorial choices in this exhibition, which nonetheless is one of the three really memorable, important, and innovative shows we saw in Paris.


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