Until 16 May 2016, the Fondation Maeght (Saint-Paul-de-Vence) is hosting the exhibition “Espace, Espaces!” (Space, Spaces!) — a unique rereading of the foundation’s collections by the institution’s director Olivier Kaeppelin.
French writer Georges Perec knew a good deal about space. According to this author of Espèces d’espaces (Species of Spaces) — to which the exhibition’s title pays homage —, “the space of our lives is neither constructed nor infinite nor homogenous nor isotropic. But do we know exactly where it shatters, where it curves, where it disconnects and meets up? Our sense of its fissures, hiatuses, friction points is confused, sometimes we have the vague impression that somewhere, something is stuck or breaking apart or banging.”
Space is the starting and end point of all artistic creations. Olivier Kaeppelin considers that “what artists create is first of all a space for themselves. We don’t share this space, we penetrate it.” Artists know how to fill in hiatuses, to sublimate friction points, or sometimes, to bang.”
The foundation’s visitors are invited to witness these different ways in which artists handle space: the reconfiguration and fragmentation of pictorial spaces, the construction of utopic and intimate spaces — an idea that is not estranged from “Inhabiting the World”, the theme of the 2014 Busan Biennale of which Olivier Kaeppelin was artistic director —, with interest paid to matter and its properties, the distortion of reality and the decomposition of movement.
This itinerary through the Fondation Maeght’s collections is also an opportunity for Olivier Kaeppelin to unveil the works recently acquired by the collection. Namely the enormous Wolfgang Gäfgen donation — 40 drawings, five large graphic works and a triptych — or else La Renaissance (2011), an elegant bronze work by Claudine Drai, donated by the artist to the institution.
True, the common denominator is broad, but sketching an itinerary through a collection is a complex exercise, especially when the idea is to point to its wealth and eclecticism. In this way, works by Gérard Garouste stand alongside drawings by Giacometti — “an overview of his theory of space”, according to Olivier Kaeppelin —, comic drawings by Saül Steinberg or art brut via Anne Tréal-Bresson.
All this is offered without the exhibition giving the impression of being a junk room. The hanging is precise, meticulous, and certain arrangements outline fine narrations. This is visible in one of the two rooms on the theme “Des Mondes pour le corps”, in which two drawings face one another. The first is by Balthus: Katia dans un fauteuil. Katia is represented seated, eyes closed, arms crossed and legs slightly open. What do we see here? Ambivalence. The girl surrenders while closing herself up, she lets herself go to a controlled lasciviousness. Left as a sketch, the drawing has mainly been worked over in the girl’s thigh area where shading is far more accurate. “Desire isolates the capacity to grasp,” comments the foundation’s director.
Facing the Balthus is a charcoal on paper by Nicolas de Staël, Étude de Nu (1955), produced just a few weeks before the artist’s suicide. The composition is extremely pared down: a simple contrast of black and white that brings out a silhouette, the figure’s arms along the body and the head hanging slightly, in a position of waiting — or even interrogation. In this study it is easy to read the artist’s resignation, the inevitability of a decision that has already been made.
In short, Eros faces Thanatos, and between the two, a bronze by Sui Jianguo. One of the “blind” bronzes created by the artist by striking clay with boxer gloves. The sculpture is the print left by the sculptor, “the space that the body inhabited”, a trace of life.
Towards “thought through viewing”
Olivier Kaeppelin, a poet, is familiar with the danger of the verb — and by extension, the danger of thought: “Words are beautiful but we shouldn’t forget thought that originates in art, and in viewing.” This idea is no doubt the DNA of the Fondation Maeght. Incidentally, when André Malraux inaugurated the institution in July 1964, he declared: “This is not a museum.” In other words, the foundation does away with classifications and historicisation; it works on the present, and according to Olivier Kaeppelin, it sets out to be a place where art is experienced, “a place of thought through viewing”.
This idea of thought through viewing runs through the itinerary and becomes increasingly strong. From Aby Warburg and his Atlas Mnemosyne — a reconstruction of the history of forms through images alone — to whom George Didi-Huberman paid homage in 2014 at the Palais de Tokyo through the exhibition “Nouvelles histoires de fantômes”, to John Berger and his Ways of Seeing, the 20th century showed the danger of reason while opening up paths to redemption.
“There are many little bits of space,” wrote Georges Perec who considered “living as passing from one space to another while trying not to bang oneself as far as possible”. These bits of space can be found at the Fondation Maeght, and one may well wonder whether art doesn’t play a function of steering us like blind people through the kingdom of the invisible as we bump against the obstacles created by our own reason.