Four recent exhibitions dedicated to the writers Guillaume Apollinaire, Jean Genet, Pierre Guyotat and Michel Houellebecq addressed, in avowedly celebratory tones, their influence on art and artists and the enduring relevance of their ideas. Houellebecq, a once-dissenting conservative who is now respected in both popular and scholarly circles, is associated with anomie and, more specifically, with the so-called decline of France, while Apollinaire, Genet and Guyotat were (and are, in the case of the latter) at the forefront of French intellectual life, exploring ideas around modernism, resistance to the Algerian war, the politics of third world solidarity and the sexual liberation of the 1960s and ’70s.
At the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, ‘Apollinaire: Le regard du poète’ (The Vision of the Poet) focused on the period between 1902 – when the Polish-born poet, playwright and novelist began to write about art – and his death in 1918. A supporter of cubism, Apollinaire invented the term ‘surrealism’ and introduced Giorgio De Chirico to his first dealer, Paul Guillaume. The exhibition mapped the writer’s visual world by including many artworks that once belonged to him, such as Marie Laurencin’s Apollinaire et ses amis (Apollinaire and his Friends, 1909), and established his decisive role as a discoverer and networker. This incredibly rich exhibition brought to light his friendships with Pablo Picasso – who drew the frontispiece of Apollinaire’s volume of poems Alcools (Alcohol, 1913) – and Guillaume, with whom Apollinaire shared a passion for African art and called for its inclusion in the Louvre, which is acknowledged here with several examples.
The most intriguing work in the show was De Chirico’s eerie, premonitory portrait of Apollinaire made at the onset of World War I. Looming over the composition is a black profile with a circle traced around its left temple: two years later, Apollinaire, who had signed up to fight, received a shrapnel wound in that exact spot. Weakened from his injury, he died in the 1918 flu pandemic. Other works here were less biographical. Marc Chagall’s oneiric Paris par la fenêtre (Paris through the Window, 1913), for example, was included simply because it was mentioned in passing in one of the writer’s reviews. But it was also a virtue of the show that it evoked a time when Paris attracted many foreign artists and writers.
A recurring theme of 'Jean Genet: L’échappée belle’ (The Narrow Escape) at The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations in Marseille (MuCEM) was the writer’s desire to leave France for other countries, whether Greece (where he lived for three years) or Morocco (where he eventually settled). Genet, who was born in 1910 and abandoned by his mother when he was a baby, deserted the French colonial army and spent years in and out of prison. In 1949, by which time he was a famous writer, a petition initiated the previous year by Jean Cocteau and André Malraux saved him from life imprisonment. Though Genet is best known for his transgressive plays and novels, he stated towards the end of his life that Alberto Giacometti was the person he admired most. Fittingly, the sculptor’s L’Homme qui marche (The Walking Man, 1960) was a centrepiece to the exhibition, together with one of the portraits the artist made of Genet.
The exhibition, however, mainly consisted of written documents, including administrative records on Genet, and was articulated around three works: the semi-autobiographical Journal du voleur (The Thief’s Journal, 1949), his play Les Paravents (The Screens, 1961) and his memoir of encounters with Palestinian fighters and Black Panthers, Un captif amoureux (Prisoner of Love, 1986). A captivating section of the show explored Genet’s political engagement through video
interviews. The performance of Les Paravents – a play dealing with the Algerian war – in 1966 at the Théâtre de l’Odéon in Paris, caused vitriolic reactions amongst the far right. The exhibition also focused on Genet’s backing of the Palestinian cause and of the Black Panthers but was silent about his controversial support
of the Baader-Meinhof Group and his suspected anti-Semitism.
Contemporary relevance was also the premise of ‘Pierre Guyotat: La matière de nos oeuvres’ (The Material of our Works) at Galerie Azzedine Alaïa, Paris. Recognized for his radical appropriation of the French language, Guyotat, who is now 76, galvanized France’s cultural establishment in the late 1960s and ’70s and shares with Genet both the first-hand experience of prison and an attachment to North Africa. He was ‘discovered’ with his semi-autobiographical novel Tombeau pour cinq cent mille soldats (Tomb for 500,000 Soldiers, 1967), an epic that builds on his years as a soldier in the Algerian war. A black and white self-portrait photograph, taken in Algeria in 1962, shortly before Guyotat was arrested for ‘infringing the morality’ of the army, served as the starting point to the exhibition, which paired some of his key writings and new drawings with works by artist friends and others he has inspired. These included Michael Dean’s hnnnhhnnn-hnnnhnnnnh (Analogue Series) (2014), a sculptural homage to Guyotat’s novel Eden, Eden, Eden (1970) – long-censored for its explicit scenes of sex and violence – and contributions from contemporary artists including Juliette Blightman, Elijah Burgher, Paul McCarthy, Jean-Luc Moulène and Cerith Wyn Evans.
The typewritten manuscripts Guyotat has donated to the Bibliothèque nationale de France were highlights and opened a window onto his working processes. Another focus was the two-metre nude portrait of Guyotat, made in 1990 by the late Bernard Dufour, which Guyotat saw for the first time at the show’s opening. Contrary to what the painting might suggest, Guyotat is a discrete person, immersed in the possibilities of the French language, who stays away from the limelight.
The opposite could be said of Houellebecq, who moonlights as a singer, filmmaker and artist but who is best known for the bleak worldview he constructs in his novels. ‘Rester vivant’ (Staying Alive), at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, presented the writer’s key themes, explored primarily through the photographs he has taken since the early 1990s, as well as the works of four artists and friends. But the 2000m² presentation was appalling for the paucity of its content and its megalomania. It followed a simple narrative: fear, despair and ‘pure’ love.The first rooms displayed Houellebecq’s undated photographs of France’s semi-urban landscapes accompanied by statements such as: ‘I did not have, more than most of these people, a true reason to kill myself.’ A series dedicated to mass tourism consisted of brash, colour-saturated shots of overbuilt seafronts, while another presented Houellebecq’s erotic photographs. This amateurish installation was attributed to Houellebecq himself, who was also responsible for the announcement at the show’s entrance, which began with the ominous words: ‘Please do not leave your bags unattended …’
The exhibition culminated in a shrine-like room dedicated to Houellebecq’s dead Corgi, Clément, comprising a vitrine filled with the dog’s toys, as well as snapshots and watercolour portraits by Houellebecq’s ex-wife Marie-Pierre Gauthier. A digital slideshow of more images of dogs was set to a soundtrack of Iggy Pop declaiming passages from Houellebecq’s novel La Possibilité d’une île (The Possibility of an Island, 2005): ‘What is a dog but a machine for loving?’ I’m a dog lover too, but the idea that their companionship is the only thing that might save us from dystopia seems flimsy and sentimental.
The relationship between art and literature that spans a century in these four exhibitions could not be more different. Whereas Apollinaire’s writing was transformative and forward-looking, Houellebecq’s is rooted in an angst-ridden present. One testifies to a creatively fertile connection that involved mutually enforcing strategies of early recognition and dissemination; the other to a model based on the bankability of an author and the attractive pull of the art world. This is a shame: there are many talented artists and writers living in France today who might have come up with a less facile take on contemporary life. In a recent interview, with Donatien Grau (the curator of the Guyotat show and the editor of its exhibition catalogue), Guyotat decries the dumbing down of cultural agendas that use popularity as a benchmark of success and explains how, over the past centuries, only a relatively small audience really understood and supported what many now consider great creation. In a time of rampant populism, what the country needs more than ever are responses that are complex, personal and illuminating and that better attest to the vibrancy of French artistic and intellectual life.
Lead image: Marie Laurencin, Apollinaire et ses Amis (Apollinaire and his Friends), 1909, oil on canvas, 1.4 x 1.9 m
First published in Issue 182