Bernard-Henri Lévy, France’s most famous public intellectual, becomes a curator with a heady new exhibition about the eternal struggle for truth. Slide Show
It is very likely that if you sit with Bernard-Henri Lévy over green tea in the lobby of the Carlyle hotel and he explains his wildly ambitious new exhibition at the Fondation Maeght in the South of France, you will not entirely understand the concept. You will worry that you are being airheaded for not following all the Kant and Goethe thrown around, but you will nonetheless be entirely persuaded that the exhibit is fascinating and important, because Lévy is nothing if not a truly great talker, a creator of excitement, a seducer of more cautious or less resourceful minds, even in his English, or maybe especially in his English, which he apologizes for with panache.
The exhibit, “Les Aventures de la Vérité,” which will open on June 29, is so grand and sweeping and baroquely complex in its ambitions that it would take an extremely long book to explain what it is trying to do, and in fact the French polemicist has written a 400-page tome, which is actually the catalog.
The show emerges from the fraught, fruitful relationship between art and philosophy; it is a history of ideas, with 170 or so artworks grouped into seven “stations,” with names like “The Fatality of Shadows” and “Philosophy’s Tomb,” which will be accompanied by texts explaining the complex ideas at play. There will also be black-and-white films of artists like Kehinde Wiley, Jeff Koons, Jake and Dinos Chapman, and Matthew Day Jackson reading excerpts from works of philosophy, which are, in Lévy’s words, “the beating heart of the exhibit.”
Lévy is trying to document a lively struggle between art and philosophy to illuminate human experience, in which the two are sometimes rivals and sometimes allies. He says, “The exhibit will tell the story of how the idea of truth takes shape, disappears and reappears through the two mediums of art and philosophy, and how the two struggle for control of what truth is.”
One of the exhibit’s most intriguing premises is that art has very little to do with its place and time. The show will mingle old and new, contemporary and classical, a crucifixion by Pollock with its Renaissance counterpart; Lévy is interested in the tension between them, the ways they will interrogate each other, the truths they will tease out from the confrontation. As he explains, “I am mixing time periods so as to make order. I want a Basquiat and a Bronzino to speak to each other.”
We are so used to walking into a gallery organized by a single painter or a period or theme that this exhibit is meant to challenge or defy more comfortable kinds of museumgoing. Torn out of their usual more predictable contexts, the artworks require us to see them differently, posing provocative questions.
The director of the Fondation Maeght, Olivier Kaeppelin, first approached Lévy with the idea to curate the exhibit over dinner in the South of France in August 2011. The next day Lévy was leaving for Libya to work on a film about the downfall of Muammar el-Qaddafi. As he was completing that project over the following months, he began to turn his attention to the less volatile subject of art.
Only very rarely does the Fondation Maeght invite an outsider to dream up an exhibit. The most famous instance was 40 years ago, when André Malraux staged his splashy, ambitious “Musée Imaginaire” in 1973, which Lévy visited in his 20s.
Lévy tells me that he himself does not collect art, which seems surprising for someone of his vast resources and cultural interests. He says this is because his father, who was very political, did not believe in art collecting. He believed art was for everyone, and collections were elitist, an idea that somehow communicated itself to his son. So this is Lévy’s first collection, and it is not strictly his. “It will go through my hands like sand,” he says.
We are familiar, of course, with philosopher kings, but is there a new breed of philosopher curators? Another popular philosopher, Alain de Botton, has also turned his attention to art and is curating his own philosophy-infused exhibits that also mix time periods, which will open next year in Amsterdam, Melbourne and Toronto. “The truth is that many visits to museums can be intellectually rather lacking, and philosophy can help us find new ways to give art space in our lives,” he says. “Art can tell us truths philosophy can’t, but it may require a philosopher to tease out these truths.”
One could easily imagine artists bristling at this noisy intrusion of philosophers into their creative space. But Marina Abramovic told me about the gloomy rainy day when Lévy, with what she called his “film-star quality,” walked into her studio in SoHo. “I had never seen him before, and I thought, Oh my God, he really has his shirt open,” she says. “But he came into my studio and said so precisely in very few words what it was about. He was very clear. Philosophers can tell you about your work, and aspects of it you don’t know. They can see things much faster than artists because artists work from the subconscious, from a place beyond words. Philosophers kind of give order to art.”
Later I ask Lévy what he said that captured so precisely what Abramovic was doing in her current work, and at her future institute in Hudson, N.Y. What he said was this: “We have killed the utopia, and you are perhaps in the middle of reviving one. But a happy utopia, modest, and melancholy. A utopia without a shadowed face, without a cursed part, without the possibility of totalitarian overthrow. I like your way also of redefining space, time and their relation. In this, you are doing philosophy.”
One imagines that the scuffle Lévy describes between art and philosophy over the centuries is taking place in some tiny way in the making of the films. Here is Bernard-Henri Lévy in all of his magnificence coming into studios and handing artists texts to read that he thinks are relevant to their work. Do they agree? Do they have their own ideas of what they want to read? Does this bother Lévy, who is, for a writer or intellectual, used to a fairly high level of power in the outside world? He says it does not bother him at all. He says the collaboration is part of the “Borgesian fiction” of the experience. He also says, “Sometimes there is quite the discussion.”
He tells me, for example, about visiting Jeff Koons in his studio. He has brought with him Kant’s “Critique of Judgment” so that Koons could read a passage from it about the sublime. The first thing Koons says to him is that he can’t read it. He is against judgment. Lévy says, “But the passage is not about judgment, it is about the sublime.” Koons refuses to read from the book. In the end they pick another text, from Aristotle. Koons paces around his studio while reading it and everyone is happy.
Later this month, Lévy’s vision will come to life when the exhibit opens its doors. One wonders after the Champagne is drunk, and the chic museumgoers vanish into the warm summer night, and the guards go home to their families, and the lights are dimmed in the vast empty rooms, what will happen when the Basquiat begins to speak to the Bronzino, when they begin bickering over who is boring or who is crazy or whether that is blood on the Basquiat, or whether the New York subway or a chapel in Florence is a more sacred space, or what Christ suffered for, and Warhol’s “Studies of Jackie” begins to murmur in dulcet tones to “The Veil of Saint Veronica”? It would be the great culmination of Lévy’s dream to be the fly on that wall.
Photo : Bernard-Henri Lévy with « L’intouchable », 2007, by Gloria Friedmann, at the Fondation Maeght in St-Paul-de-Vence, France, where his show on the relationship between art and philosophy opens this month. (c) Robi Rodriguez