A giant lobster in the Salon de Mars

 Paris  |  11 December 2017  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

Bringing contemporary art into heritage sites… and vice versa. In France, this practice has developed widely since the 1980s. From Jeff Koons to Paul MacCarthy, we retrace a French cultural exception… that gives off a whiff of scandal.


It’s a fact… The integration of recent artworks on heritag sites is far from being a new phenomenon. Over the centuries, monuments have always submitted to the transformations brought by artistic modernity and the sensibilities of individual artists and artisans. But in France, from the second half of the 19th century onwards, a desire to safeguard and protect historic constructions began to somewhat overturn this practice; for the sake of “collective consciousness”, it was deemed necessary to preserve these monuments as witnesses to the past which defines our own history.

It was thus timidly that art, as an expression of its times, began turning its attention afresh to heritage buildings, following 1945. The installation in the Cathédrale de Metz, in the 1950s, of the first stained-glass windows by internationally renowned and independent painters, inaugurated a new artistic direction for the French Historic Monuments office. Jacques Villon, Roger Bissière and of course Marc Chagall opened the way for modernity to be assimilated in buildings hitherto synonymous with the past – not without causing debate. What can be noted is that the first orders of this type were mainly stained-glass windows intended for cathedrals and other churches. Next to come were André Masson’s ceiling for the Théâtre de l’Odéon and Marc Chagall’s ceiling for the Opéra Garnier – the leading works to be carried out during the years when André Malraux was France’s culture minister (1959-1969), attesting to his commitment.

At a time when examples from overseas still couldn’t be found, contemporary-art commissions for historic monuments were backed up in France by the arrival, in 1981, of the new French president François Mitterrand, who appointed Jack Lang as culture minister. On top of a significant increase in the culture budget – going up from 6 billion in 1982 to 13.7 billion in 1993 –, two decisions favoured the multiplication of more projects: the implementation of a heritage policy favouring the integration of contemporary art in historic monuments, reinforced by support offered to artistic trades – such as the art of stained-glass making – which would benefit also by taking off remarkably. It is thanks to these public orders that France today now comes to boast of an exceptional collection of stained-glass works by international contemporary-art figures such as Robert Morris, Jan Dibbets, Ann Veronica Janssens or Christopher Wool. However, for the last twenty years or so, the budgets and cultural priorities of successive governments have not paid as much attention to supporting and developing artistic creation. The budget allocated to culture stagnates at 1 % of the State budget, and has considerably dropped since 2008 (- 30 % for heritage, – 8 % for creation, – 30 % for cultural research).

Overseas, we can note a number of interesting projects – carried out sparingly, admittedly, in Europe –, for example Gerhard Richter’s stained-glass windows in 2007 in Cologne, Dan Flavin’s light installation in the Santa Maria Annunciata in Milan in 1996, or else Sigmar Polke’s incredible agate glass windows, produced in 2009, just before the artist’s death, for the Zurich Grossmünster. Despite these examples, it should be said that the contexts of their production were different and did not reflect the same commitment as the cultural policy that France followed.


Standing up to History

Artists representing all generations and inclinations have evolved considerably in terms of their desire to see their works become part of historic buildings. Indeed, their artistic and political preoccupations, in the 1960s-70s, were far removed from those represented by the country’s political bodies and institutions; artists at the time thus considered museums and historic monuments as sanctuaries of the past. However, intervening in a historical building means standing up to History, facing up to the History of humans. The work is no longer considered for its own sake, it is conceived for a place, a heritage site that has been handed down to us, which we in turn will hand down to future generations.

“An artist in a workshop is different from an artist who goes out into the city,” François Rouan confides to us, regarding his creation of stained-glass windows in Nevers and Castelnau-le-Lez, adding that the restrictions imposed by a piece of architecture can become a strength. This viewpoint is shared by Claude Rutault, whose work has joined the parish church of Saint-Prim, a modest village of 1,000 inhabitants which, since 2008, has regularly attracted visitors wishing to discover the painter’s work: “This unusual context has enabled me to verify a certain number of ideas that I had about painting. If I make holes in a gallery, I know the reactions I’ll get; it’s been 35 years that I’ve been doing paintings in the same colour as the wall, so I’m starting to know the reactions. Here, you’re forced to face problems that you don’t always master and you have to bend to new constraints.”

Apart from these major window programmes, public commissions have also privileged the introduction of artworks in all types of public spaces, favouring a diversity of forms, from installations to sculpture to tapestry… In  L’Art à ciel ouvert: commandes publiques en France, published in 2008, authors Laurent Le Bon and Caroline Cros list 700 works produced from 1983 to 2007. The corpus is impressive, as well as the prestige of the selected artists.

While many of these works today raise issues regarding their maintenance and conservation – issues that, unfortunately, are not always adequately considered –, we can only rejoice in the presence of this heritage in the making. The work that undoubtedly best incarnates this updated heritage is Daniel Buren’s installation at the Palais Royal, Les Deux Plateaux, completed in 1986: the so-called “Buren columns”, sadly notorious for the national uproar that they caused at the time, but whose appropriateness is now fully accepted.

Other examples demonstrate the strength of propositions throughout the whole of France. In Figeac (in southwest France), on the Place des Écritures, the American leader of conceptual art, Joseph Kosuth, paid a vibrant homage to Champollion through his monumental work Ex-libris (1991), installed to commemorate the bicentenary of the birth of the archaeologist who enabled hieroglyphics to be deciphered. The artist reconstituted and enlarged the Rosetta Stone on ground level, recreated in granite and engraved with three scripts. Visitors are invited to circulate over the work, and Kosuth offers the following explanation: “The passage of people over the archaeologist’s birthplace constitutes a passage comparable to Champollion’s work of decoding when he passed from demotic Egyptian to Greek, finally leading to the hieroglyphics.” For a more confidential example, we can cite Richard Serra’s Octagon for Saint-Eloi in 1991, in a town of 5,000 inhabitants in Chagny, Burgundy: an octagonal volume of 57 tons of steel placed in front of Eglise Saint-Martin, whose pure forms conjure up the austerity of the Cistercian architecture typical of this region.

Granted, out of these 700 works, not all match up to the site in the same way, nor do they reveal the same artistic qualities… But all these projects have uncontestably left their mark on our landscape, whether urban or rural, and have opened up a new way of showing contemporary art outside the traditional circuits and the “white cube” gallery model, so coveted in previous decades.


Financial issues and artistic dimension

Starting off from the installation of permanent artworks in historic gems, another fad emerged in the 1980s: the organisation of temporary exhibitions on heritage sites. Indeed, more and more historic buildings, including many places of worship, have now been converted into exhibition spaces, which occasionally welcome big contemporary-art events, such as the Nuit Blanche or Monumenta. Regular events, such as “L’art dans les chapelles” (Art in the Chapels), organised every summer since 1992 in Brittany, have become genuine institutions after twenty or so years of existence, even if their programmes sometimes get a bit tired due to a rehashing of artistic choices. These are opportunities to place the spotlight on these architectural treasures and for them to be (re)discovered through the prism of contemporary art, while also stimulating cultural tourism and generating considerable economic fallout. One such initiative has been going on for six years: “In Situ, patrimoine & art contemporain”, an event around the Occitan region where we can come across young talents like Suzy Lelièvre who, last summer, filled the Hôtel Flottes de Sébasan in Pézenas, with volumes combining mathematical concepts and representations of white sheet-metal houses…

Here, we should also hail the exemplary work accomplished by the Centre des Monuments Nationaux (CMN), whose missions to conserve and restore the collections and sites placed under its responsibility, are extended by their running of nearly 100 State-owned monuments, spread out all over France. From the Châteaux of Angers and Azay-le-Rideau to the ramparts of the city of Carcassonne and the Arc de Triomphe, the CMN’s vocation is to make these heritage wonders accessible to the masses. As the leading public cultural and tourist operator of the French ministry of culture, the establishment, organising nearly 400 events per year, spares no efforts. At the instigation of its president Philippe Bélaval, its contemporary programme keeps on getting richer and richer: painter Gérard Traquandi’s carte blanche at the Abbaye de Montmajour in Arles, a performance by Lydie Arickx at the Conciergerie in 2016… Among the great events scheduled in 2017, mention can be made of Georges Jeanclos at the Palais Jacques-Cœur in Bourges, Julien Salaud at the Château de Cadillac, and also Germaine Richier at the Abbaye du Mont-Saint-Michel. Bear in mind that the Centre des Monuments Nationaux welcomed, in 2016, a whopping 8,576,000 visitors onto its sites throughout its network…

While scores of examples from France can be listed, overseas, this type of programme is not quite so well developed. In Italy, the Castle of Rivoli, in Piedmont, stands out as an exception. This Renaissance castle, successfully renovated by Italian architect Andrea Bruno, after its contemporary-art museum was inaugurated in 1984, today hosts a formidable collection of works by Italian and overseas artists. Following the same approach, we can cite, in France, the collection of the Château d’Oiron, imagined in 1991 by Jean-Hubert Martin as a curiosity cabinet. Meanwhile, the Palacio de Cristal in Madrid, nicknamed “La Bombonera” (the candy box), a stunning glass monument dating from 1887, welcomes performances and temporary exhibitions organised by the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia; this was where, South Korean artist Kim Sooja staged a remarkable sensory experience in 2006. In Paris, the Grand Palais, thanks to the Monumenta programme run by the French ministry of culture, is regularly filled by monumental installations such as Anish Kapoor’s extraordinary Leviathan in 2011. Out of the seven artists invited to take part in Monumenta, since 2007, only two have been French, with the State once again demonstrating a desire to put an international dimension on this heritage policy. As for private initiatives, we can note the example of François Pinault: twelve years after his failure to realise his Île Seguin project, which led him to install his contemporary-art collection in Venice, at the Palazzo Grassi and the Punta della Dogana, the French entrepreneur is in the process of taking over the Bourse de Commerce, Paris’ remarkable historic stock-exchange building, whose renovation has been entrusted to Japanese architect Tadao Andō.

The Château de Versailles is an example well worth lingering over… In 2008, Jean-Jacques Aillagon, the then president of the Château de Versailles, invited Jeff Koons to fit out the palace. Around fifteen contemporary works were installed in the King’s and Queen’s Apartments. While there were some  who took offense at this dialogue, seeing it as “an outrage against the work of Louis XIV”, or, according to Arnaud-Aaron Upinsky, president of the National Union of Writers in France, “a true stain upon what is the most sacred in our heritage and our identity”, others proved to look more favourably upon this bold marriage. But the real controversy lies in the exhibition’s impact on the artist’s prices, which have doubled since. While François Pinault injected a sponsorship sum of around €800,000 (out of a global budget of €1.9 million global) into the project, he also lent six works from his collection, three of which have subsequently been resold. Here, we see an emergence of financial stakes where, hitherto, the artistic dimension alone was raised. After Versailles, other controversies, raising more or less tension, have followed and become more habitual – for the exhibitions by Xavier Veilhan, Joana Vasconcelos, Takashi Murakami or else Anish Kapoor, whose work Dirty Corner, nicknamed “the queen’s vagina” and sullied by anti-Semitic inscriptions, would be the object of intense controversy. As scandal always acts as bait for the curious, visitor numbers at the Koons exhibition recorded a 15 % rise over the period, in other words roughly one million visitors, backing up Jean-Jacques Aillagon opinion that the hanging would enable “the château to once again appear in the eyes of the world as a spot for exceptional events”. However, ten years after Koons, the current president of the Château de Versailles, Catherine Pégard, is changing strategy and has announced new directions for contemporary art. She has called on the help of Jean de Loisy, president of the Palais de Tokyo, and Alfred Pacquement, former director of the Musée National d’Art Moderne, to experiment with a new formula. The result, “Voyage d’hiver” (Winter Voyage), calls on guest artists to intervene no longer inside the palace, but in its gardens. And the contemporary-art event is no longer to be held in summer but in autumn (from 21 October 2017 to 7 January 2018), thus coinciding with the FIAC’s opening.

Which raises the FIAC, the big contemporary-art do that, since 2006, has penetrated a few historic buildings… Indeed, the Hors les Murs programme offers original strolls in the course of which visitors can discover often monumental works in emblematic spots of the French capital, among them, the Jardins des Tuileries, or more surprisingly, the Museum d’Histoire Naturelle, right up to the Place Vendôme, the site at which American artist Paul MacCarthy was assaulted and his work, Tree, vandalised, despite it measuring 24 metres tall. Even if the Jardin des Plantes and Museum d’Histoire Naturelle programme stopped in 2015, after offering a beautiful match between contemporary in situ works and the sites’ scientific collections, the 2017 edition of the FIAC still includes three heritage spots. The Jardin des Tuileries, where sculpture and architecture are honoured by thirty or so propositions, the Place Vendôme with carte blanche given to artist Oscar Tuazon, and finally, the Musée Eugène-Delacroix on Rue de Furstenberg, hosting the work of German artist Katinka Bock…


Proactive museum policies

Beyond its scientific dimension and its vocation to conserve works, the museum has become a tourist spot in which mediation is developed on different scales. Here, the practice is now so widespread that an exhaustive list would be too long to enumerate. Let’s just remember that the first initiatives popped up in London and in Rotterdam, followed by France, initially in museums outside Paris, as in Dijon, the first recorded exhibition being “Présences discrètes”, organised at the Musée des Beaux-arts in 1983, by curators Xavier Douroux, Franck Gautherot and Christian Besson. In the invitation sent out to artists in May 1982, the intention was clearly expressed as presenting contemporary works in an uncustomary context: “The exhibition relies on the insertion of contemporary works in the circuit of the museum’s permanent collections without causing confusion in the habitual presentation of the said collections. It doesn’t aim to be an exercise in dissimulation, it merely seeks to offer guest artists the possibility of taking into consideration a place, today a natural space for the presentation of art, with its constraints, but also its pleasures, to affirm a relevant existence. In no way does this exhibition wish to set up an analysis or criticism of the museum institution”. The list of artists exhibited reveals a leaning towards radical aesthetics, but also expresses genuine commitment to dialogue between contemporary art and works from the past.

In the 2000s, a period when many museums temporarily closed their doors for renovations, some curators – often following the right intuition – summoned artists to intervene in these spaces on a short-term basis. In 2006, Christophe Cuzin painted every wall of the Musée Picasso in Antibes pink and blue… a nod to the Catalan master. Faced with the absence of pictorial objects, which were replaced by a single colour, the artist inverted “the museum proposition”, to cite Patrick Sabatier in Libération, “as the exhibition is the place itself”. Another example: Sculpture d’ombre, produced in 2002 by Claudio Parmiggiani at the Musée Fabre – a former Jesuit college in Montpellier, whose library dating from 1845 had been moved – offered to call on memory by filling the space with the ghostly traces of books. So much to say that in French regions, these initiatives have enabled a new public to be seduced, and surprises to be created for museum regulars…

This period was also characterised by the implementation of proactive policies in museums as symbolic as the Louvre or the Orsay. In 2003, the appointment of curator Marie-Laure Bernadac at the Louvre heralded an era favourable for the invitation of living artists to this prestigious institution. Let’s remember that until 1947, only Picasso had the privilege of being invited to exhibit there, and it was not until 1967 that the experience would be renewed, this time with Chagall. Here, we’re not talking about commissions for permanent works, like the order placed with Braque in 1953 or those that would follow until a more recent period, with artists such as François Morellet, Anselm Kiefer or Cy Twombly. Baptised “Contrepoint”, the programme developed by Marie-Laure Bernadac, until her departure in 2013, allowed the discovery – in the same way as Orsay’s “Correspondances”, with Serge Lemoine – of works by the greatest representatives of international contemporary art, matched with the institution’s permanent collections.

Inviting today’s artists into this type of setting above all means redefining the museum of the 21st century. While these artistic interventions are more or less relevant at a time when mediation has become a real goal for museums (see the French ministerial report drawn up by the “Musées du XXIe siècle” mission, submitted to French culture minister Audrey Azoulay in March 2016), contemporary art is in the process of becoming an added asset that argues in favour of museum attractiveness. This may well be the case, but on the other hand, we can also question ourselves about the legitimacy of this contemporary presence. Ultimately, a few thoughts gathered from Marie-Laure Bernadac’s experience may well invite prudence: is it a good thing for a contemporary artist to be legitimised by a heritage context? Or alternatively: won’t we end up tiring the public who comes to a site simply to see old art?




One artist, one monument

Julien Salaud at the Château de Cadillac, Germaine Richier at the Abbaye du Mont-Saint-Michel… Every year, the Centre des Monuments Nationaux invites artists to deck out this or that monument that it oversees. From these encounters between contemporary art and heritage, original works are born, whose traces are conserved in each title from a new book collection: “Un artiste / un monument”. For this series, graphic artist Philippe Bretelle has designed a multi-dimensional catalogue. Indeed, the publication can be read in two formats: we discover texts and notices in a small 18 x 28 cm format… that can fold out to a 36 x 58 cm poster format. Perfect for getting the measure of these monuments and works! Published by Éditions du Patrimoine, the first two titles (on Julien Salaud and on Germaine Richier) will be followed up, in 2018, by Olivier Roller’s installations at the Château d’Angers and Stéphane Thidet at the Conciergerie.


Tags: ,