Newsletter 285

Published May 6, 2019
Enter the time tunnel at the Centre Pompidou

Labour Day in Paris is a reminder of the socialistic nature of the French. Almost every museum is closed, with the exception of the Jacquemart-André – a monument to faded aristocracy. On the other hand, maybe they’re just like the Aussies: any excuse for a day off.

It didn’t sound like a very promising round of exhibitions when I looked at the gallery guide before arriving here, but everything I’ve seen so far has been really fascinating, starting with a Victor Vasarely retrospective at the Centre Pompidou. Like many people I had a fixed idea of Vasarely as a time capsule of the 1960s but it’s amazing how well his geometric abstractions have weathered. At the Pompidou they looked like the height of retro chic.

As I’m really in Paris to see paintings by Monet I spent an inordinate amount of time at the Musée Marmottan Monet, mostly in front of Impression Sunrise (1872), the work that accidentally christened an entire movement. Australian audiences will get the chance to see the painting in June when it arrives as the centrepiece for a blockbuster show at the National Gallery of Australia.

Marmottan, for some unknown reason, had allowed French Pop artist, Gerard Fromanger, to run riot in the Monet rooms, creating his own works in response to what he found on the walls. The results made a persuasive argument that Impressionism goes Pop would not be a winning exhibition idea.

Other surprising shows included a very raw survey of British sculptor, Thomas Houseago, at the Musée de l’Art Modern; the melancholy paintings of Vilhelm Hammershøi at the Jacquemart-André, and a spectacular survey of Oceanic art at the Musée du Quai Branly. Many pieces from the Pacific Islands were classics of their kind that had been reproduced and exhibited on many other occasions. The show also featured Lisa Reihana’s monumental video scroll, In Pursuit of Venus: Infected (2015-17), which is rapidly becoming a contemporary classic.

Maybe that’s one of the defining aspects of art today: that something may be both tribal and classic, with no glaring contradiction. And this leads me to the latest art column, which discusses the National Museum of Australia’s touring show, Old Masters: Australia’s Great Bark Artists.

I caught the exhibition in Shenzhen, in the midst of an Chinese touring schedule that began in July last year and will continue until next February. That’s a long time to keep a lot of valuable bark paintings on the road, so one hopes this exercise helps raise Australia’s cultural profile in China.

As ever, I was struck by the hermetic nature of Chinese museums and the all-devouring enthusiasm of a general public that can’t get enough of these instititutions. There may not be as many Chinese tourists in Shenzhen as in Xi’an, but there’s no doubt that gallery-going habits are being formed in the People’s Republic. Things woud be even better if these audiences were allowed to see a greater range of international exhibits.

At the movies I had hoped to review Top End Wedding by Australia’s leading indigenous director, Wayne Blair, but because I had to pull out of the preview evening, the publicists at Universal told me there were no other options for seeing the film. My argument that surely a lavishly-staffed publicity department should facilitate a reviewer seeing a movie rather than create obstacles, fell on deaf ears. This is, perhaps, a clear indication of what a big distribution company really thinks about film reviews: “Who needs ‘em.” Or rather, who needs ‘em when we’ve got a steady diet of celebrity shlock that will pull the crowds regardless of what the critics think.

Being unable write about the local product, I fell back on The Man Who Killed Don Quixote – a notable production in its own right, having been 30 years in the making. Director, Terry Gilliam, should get some sort of award for sheer, blind stubbornness. It’s unlikely he’ll be getting too many awards for the film itself because it’s a confused, protracted, difficult production. Gilliam has given us a movie that seems to want to be a comedy, but every shaft of humour quickly dissolves into something unpleasant. It is, in brief, a problem film, but when you’ve spent 30 years on the job it might be expected those problems would be resolved.