Group of sculptures from Africa and Oceania, formerly part of the Paul Guillaume collection
The exceptional long-term loan of a group of sculptures from Africa and Oceania, formerly the Paul Guillaume Collection, by the musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, along with drawings and archives, has enriched the collection’s visitor circuit.
"The Louvre should present certain exotic masterpieces that are no less moving than the finest specimens of Western statuary." Apollinaire, 1909
Guillaume Apollinaire and Paul Guillaume both worked to promote the arts of Africa and Oceania. In 1910, Paul Guillaume put sculptures from Gabon in the window of the automobile garage where he was working, thereby attracting the attention of the French poet Baudelaire, who introduced him not only to the antique dealer Joseph Brummer but also to Picasso. Later an art dealer himself, Paul Guillaume, going against ethnocentric public opinion, made the innovatory move of exhibiting African sculptures in his gallery, thereby allowing numerous artists to discover the works.
In 1917, he loaned items to the first Dada exhibition, held by the Corray gallery in Zürich, and, with Apollinaire, published an album of photographs entitled Sculptures Nègres.
Working as an art dealer meant he found himself advising gallery owners and collectors, one of whom was Alfred Stieglitz, who held an exhibition in December 1914 at his gallery, the 291, in New York, presenting both modern and African statuary. He also bought works on behalf of Albert C. Barnes for his foundation in Philadelphia.
Although Paul Guillaume wasn’t the only person to take an interest in non-Western arts, he nevertheless played a pre-eminent role in introducing them to a wider audience, paving the way for a radical paradigm shift in how they were perceived.
Non-Western arts had long been regarded through an ethnocentric prism. Expressions like "art Nègre" or "art des Noirs", (“black art”), were part of the prevailing terminology in the early 20th century, used by both Apollinaire and Paul Guillaume.
Matrices Chromatiques [Chromatic Matrices], by Agnès Thurnauer
Matrices Chromatiques [Chromatic Matrices], functional sculptures designed by the artist Agnès Thurnauer, have been installed in a number of spaces in the Musée de l'Orangerie.
Commissioned and donated to the Centre National des Arts Plastiques through the generosity of Sophie Javary and Alain Bernard, two of the museum’s patrons, and now on long-term loan to the Orangerie, these mat aluminum bench sculptures are like a series of “water lily letters” spelling out the word "chromatiques" and taking the aura of Monet’s work to every corner of the museum.
The Chromatic Matrices gives the Musée de l’Orangerie a powerful, elegant visual signal, underlining its renovated status as a museum, now reactivated by the contemporary gaze.
Here in the Musée de l’Orangerie, in this special showcase designed to diffuse the magic of the Water Lilies, how do you see the path you followed in your mind between Claude Monet and your Matrices ?
It’s a marvelously logical path! Monet wanted his Water Lilies to create a feeling of being totally immersed in the painting, so he designed these oval rooms to exhibit the paintings in a continuum. With my Matrices/Seats, concave letters sized to the human body, I offer visitors an equally physical immersion, but this time in language. Despite being a century apart, the two mechanisms dialog with each other. The Director of the museum, Cécile Debray, who first approached me, refers to my Matrices herself as "Water Lilies of language"!
The history of art is often present in your work. Wouldn’t it be easier to start from a clean slate?
I don’t think anyone ever has a truly clean slate, particularly artists. In my work I dialog with artists from the past as though they were present: a work is dated by when someone looks at it, rather than when it is made. In this way, I reinterpreted Manet's Olympia, weaving across this iconic work all the synonyms for the word for "woman” that have been used
in the French language from the 12th to the 20th century. By doing this I encompass both the status of masterpieces, as they change with the passing years, and at language, which is constantly changing.
Authors that inspire you also find their way into your works. Is it your way of responding to their writing, through paintings and shapes?
For me, books are like places where I can roam, where I can source ideas and words. Even in my studio in Ivry-sur-Seine, I like the feeling of moving from the horizontal space of the page to the vertical space of the wall where I work. They act like communicating vessels. This idea of walking through language comes up in the Matrices, and in the Chromatic Matrices there’s the connection with the chromatic effect of the Water Lilies.
It’s hard to categorize you in terms of contemporary art, which is so highly compartmentalized. How did you manage to escape being boxed in in this way?
Until I got to a certain age, I worked on my own, following my inspiration and observing the artists I liked, who frequently had very little to do with current trends. Going back to Monet, his Cathedrals series was the invention of abstraction, but that didn’t mean he was against figuration. He didn’t claim to be avant-garde, far from it – he simply made the dichotomy itself obsolete. His only imperative was to get as close as he could to his vision, and portray what was in his mind in the best possible way. To paint the Water Lilies, he started by building the ponds to paint them, and then reproduced his vision in circular rooms — how incredibly liberating! And for us as visitors, how wonderful to be freed from art’s pictorial codes! I have to admit that as a result I’m not too bothered about the idea of contemporary art.
Visitors will be invited to sit on your works. What does a work of art lose when it becomes part of the furniture or the interior decor... And what does it gain?
You’re right, my Matrices/Seats are there to be used, they are accommodating in the physical sense. That was a deliberate choice, because in my opinion there is nothing abstract about language. Language gives reality substance. With respect to the masterpieces in the Orangerie, my Matrices/Seats are intended to reactivate our ability to interpret them, in other words to realize just how unique they are and experience all their power. Also, the fact that my sculptures are like pieces of furniture and are produced in series means that I can reach a wider audience.
You’re a woman, and you’re inhabiting an institution directed by a woman, thanks to the support of a woman patron. Are you perhaps coming to the Orangerie as a feminist?
I’ve been a feminist since the day I asked my Grade 4 teacher why there were so few women artists in museums, and she didn’t understand the question! Years later, nothing has changed, and so yes, I have come to the Orangerie as a feminist woman, to install my work here as an artist. This invitation stems from the incredible vision of Cécile Debray, Director of the Musée de l’Orangerie, and the long-term support of Sophie Javary, who managed to involve her husband, Alain. This complicity between women just adds to the beauty of the project! In this respect, I hope that other women artists will also be given a place in such prestigious institutions.
Interview by Agence Communic’Art