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May 16, 2007

Christie Davies encounters serious rubbish in Paris: Le Nouveau Réalisme at the Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris

Posted by Christie Davies

Le Nouveau Réalisme
Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris
28th March - 2nd July 2007
Daily except Tuesdays 10am - 8pm (Wednesdays until 10pm)

Le nouveau réalisme, is a vivid collection of physical and verbal garbage. Physical garbage is fun, as any child can tell you, and you can often find in it the aesthetic qualities of light and colour, line and mass that we normally seek in more structured art or more conventional landscapes. When critics write garbage about garbage that is another matter. Art does not need to be ordered or to have clear meanings; words and thoughts do. If you cannot understand a work of art, the fault is very likely your own. If you cannot understand the art critics, the fault is usually theirs. If only the French could understand this elementary point.

Le nouveau réalisme began in France in the late 1950s as a reaction against abstract art. In place of abstraction the practitioners of the new form of realism took their art from everyday items, from the tattered posters pasted one on top of another to be found on pillars throughout Paris, from the cubes of metal that are all that remain when a Renault has been crushed for scrap, from the dirty plates and cutlery (and since this is France a disgusting mass of crushed cigarette stubs) that are the detritus of a meal, from the ruins of furniture attacked with an axe or a hammer. These were then reverently arranged by the artists and displayed in the manner of all cherished collections.

When I was studying for my examinations in geology, I arranged my ammonites and trilobites, my quartz and calcite, my picrite and syenite, all of which had yielded to my hammer as a grand piano does to a nouveau réaliste, in a way that told a scientific story to the examiners. Forty years on I have forgotten the story and instead I have made them into an assemblage of shapes and symmetries, colours and textures whose purpose is now aesthetic not scientific.

When are you going to get rid of all that old rubbish?
says my lady wife at intervals of about two and a half days. You will see why I can understand and sympathise with the "new realists".

Besides I like the new realist's savage ridicule of abstract art. Jean Tinguely, built Méta-matic Number 1, 1959, now being displayed at the Grand Palais, Paris, specifically to show what nonsense abstract art is. This wonderful, spindly, electrically powered machine randomly draws abstract pictures on a block of paper. You can adjust the speed and the angles and produce do it yourself daubs without having to pay an "artist" or to hire a gifted chimpanzee or elephant.

Yet some of these rebels against the abstract are as abstract as the abstract artists they deny. Yves Klein decided to mark his break with abstract art by painting monochrome strips of colour. In 1955 he painted a single bright orange strip (shown in the exhibition) of the kind favoured by Ulster Protestants and mobile phone advertisers in order to submit it to the Salon des vérités nouvelles. After all, the future is orange. He was advised that he should add a single black spot to the work so that it would qualify as proper abstract art suited to the tastes of the new truthists. He refused and the judges rejected his work, saying that his entry depicted nothing. Klein retorted,
Yes, that is what I set out to do…. Nothingness is absolute freedom.
He didn't regret nothing. Klein thought he had achieved nirvana by consciously repudiating line and drawing, leaving only colour, a great "spiritual force" in the tradition of Goethe and Rudolf Steiner.

Klein went on to produce a variety of these silly coloured strips, that look rather like the sales charts for paint manufacturers selling to home decorators. My father, when painting his house, used to study them before choosing two matching colours for his walls, one light one for the upper wall and a darker version for the bottom two feet of the wall which he feared his active children might scuff. One year we had a fawn wall with the lowest two feet in "nigger brown". I have a feeling the paint manufacturers now call it something else. Klein's orange looks rather like the colour of a Bunsen burner when you put a dab of a sodium salt in it or the reflections from a wet pavement in Liverpool on a bad night. In other words, boring.

In 1957 Klein turned almost exclusively to painting only blue strips, on the grounds that the other colours were "too decorative". He even copy-righted his favourite ultramarine blue as IKB, International Klein Blue, Little Boy Blue. Paris has once again confirmed its reputation as the tauromerdine capital of the world. Klein's rows with his judges are but tale and counter-tale, equally full of sound and fury. Why, fifty years on, should we care whether Klein had bottle or not?

There is not much to be said either for Arman's Chopin's Waterloo 1961, the product of a happening in a gallery in Gstaad in Switzerland. Arman smashed a piano with a sledge-hammer and fastened the fragments carefully to a two by three yards, red backdrop board and hung it on a wall. He claimed he had attacked a sacred object.

Yet he has done so less successfully than a vodka-sodden Russian. Music is so sacred for Russians, that, according to the distinguished Polish anthropologist Professor S. Leonard Andrzejewski, the Russians always shit in pianos when they get drunk, since only in this way can they defile music. One might call this Russian artistic happening Mozart's Waterloo. Mozart would always hum some little scatological ditty to himself when composing; for Mozart the musical scale was a chicken-coop ladder. Mozart would have been delighted by the behaviour of the vile, drunken Red Army chorus when they arrived in Vienna and Prague in 1945 and befouled the innards of every bourgeois piano they could find. Why did Armand not do the same, rather than using a hammer. It would have made a much better happening. Marcel Duchamp would have seen the point. Indeed he is represented in the Grand Palais by a work he signed "Dolomite", which carries a notice sternly telling his admirers:

Ne rien jeter dans les urinoirs. Merci.
The splendid French tastelessness continues with a final section of giant objects notably César (César Baldaccini)'s Sein (Breast) 1965, a huge red tit, six feet high, in bright shiny resin, a fetishist's dream. In a bold dialectical statement César has resolved the antithesis Sein oder Schein. He has made sein shine. It is a statement of the old urban legend of the Japanese karaoke singer grappling with a huge microphone and burbling
Wooden tit be rubbery!
At which point a cold prosaic English voice interrupts saying:
No it is not a wooden tit, it is a microphone and if it were a wooden tit, it would not be rubbery.
You may feel that such a comment is nonsense but is it any more nonsensical than the utterances of Yves Klein? An absurd exhibition demands a corresponding review.

Dr Christie Davies, author of The Mirth of Nations, has just returned from Paris, whose appalling smell has suddenly converted him to the Irish health-fascist view that smoking should be banned in all bars and restaurants by EC decree.

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I was sad to see that your reviewer took the time to visit this exhibition without taking the trouble to open his (her?) mind to its possibilities.

I visited it at the weekend and was fascinated by the response in the 50s and 60s to the post-War problems including commercialisation and the changes in values. These artists challenged the status quo, some more successfully than others, and if their work seems obvious or trite to us we must remember how radical it was 50 years ago. They were the first to try to take art off its pedestal and relate it to the people.

As for Yves Klein, I challenge anyone to stand in front of one of his blue paintings and not feel something of the infinite and the sublime, similar to Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko.

Open your mind and your heart - you don't have to like this art but be prepared to think about the times in which it was made and don't fall into the British game of deriding anything intellectually challenging. There were several groups of young people at the exhibition and they were all discussing the theories and ideas behind these works in an open-minded way that was refreshing. Criticism is useful and interesting but scorn is just arrogance.

Posted by: Helen Sarah at June 4, 2007 02:10 AM
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