SAINT-PAUL DE VENCE, France −
If you’re going to deal with Plato’s Cave, let it be on the French Riviera. The curator of the most talked-about summer exhibition in France is none other than the best-known French philosopher in the world, Bernard-Henri Lévy. He went about it with the same passion he shows when he mobilizes for the causes he believes in, from defending Israel to removing Muammar Gadhafi from power in Libya. The result, on display until mid-November in the colorful town of Saint-Paul de Vence in southeastern France, is an exhibition in Lévy’s image. You can like it or criticize it, but it’s hard to remain indifferent to the 130 period- and idea-crossing works.
In the summer, 2,000 visitors a day ascended the hill to the town above the city of Nice, on which the small, striking museum of the Fondation Maeght stands. The flow of visitors has not abated with the arrival of fall, and nor has public debate about the exhibition. As is Lévy’s wont, he not only curated a show but created a glittering event that is also a thought-provoking encounter between visual art and philosophy.
How did the idea originate?
“The idea had its genesis as an invitation from the museum, to which I acceded because it immediately resonated deep within me. I felt that there was a true encounter here which I must not let go by,” Lévy relates, and recalls endless summers spent in the south of France since his adolescence. He turns sentimental when talking about the offer to curate an exhibition in Saint-Paul de Vence. The artistic paradise above the cerulean coastline of France has become a place where he spends more and more time with each passing year.
“At present, this is more my house than Paris is,” he notes, adding poetically, “Saint-Paul chose me, I did not choose it.” It is truly a mythic, magical place. The small medieval fortress-ringed village was put on the world map by artists such as Matisse, Picasso and Marc Chagall, who is also buried here. The art collector Aimé Maeght (pronounced mahg) granted the town its museum half a century ago, when he built a structure for the foundation that bears his name; the museum houses a permanent collection of works by artists he knew and loved.
The grounds accommodate sculptures by Alberto Giacometti, stained glass by Joan Miró, a fishpond by Georges Braque, all of which merge into a space as distinctive as it is precise.
Since its inauguration in 1964, the museum has known good times and bad, and at present it is certainly in need of a facelift to catapult it into the 21st century. Lévy has managed to fill it, in its present condition, with a heterogeneous, challenging collection. On the occasion of this event, he styles himself an “ephemeral collector” − one who exhibits a collection of works to visitors for a limited time in order to convey an idea.
Bernard-Henri Lévy, a curator for the first time at the age of 64? Wasn’t he apprehensive about tackling the unfamiliar task, and wary of the reactions?
“I was apprehensive,” he admits contemplatively, before quickly qualifying himself. “The risk I took is not even close to the risk the artists took when they created these works. Even when I am in Libya or Bosnia, reporting from the fields of war, I never think about the physical risk but about the risk of being wrong, that the idea will fail.” Of course, he adds, “It’s possible that three grumpy professional complainers could have come forth and attacked me. But I didn’t care about that,” he says, gesturing with his hand. And then, with a broad smile, he adds, “There were none.”
Indeed, the exhibition has drawn high praise, even from those who are generally not known for showering Lévy with compliments. Most notable among these was the critic from Le Monde (as a member of the paper’s board of directors, Lévy is a natural target for its barbs), who opened his report by apologizing because he was about to write a positive review of the exhibition.
Before the acclaim, though, came meticulous and lengthy preparatory work. Lévy spent two years preparing the exhibition, which not by chance is titled “Les aventures de la vérité” − “Adventures of Truth.” The“ philosopher took as his point of departure a place he is very familiar with: the written word and the verbal expression of an idea. For the exhibition he compiled a “catalog-book” (the first edition published by Grasset) containing extensive extracts from a journal he kept while working on the show, plus notes on the works. “Without the publication of the book, I would not have undertaken to curate the exhibition,” he says.
The idea Lévy investigates with great skill is as old as human history and the history of art: the question of truth and the possibility of representing it by visual means, not only verbally. His launching place is both brilliant and obvious alike − Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” What every student in Philosophy 101 is familiar with becomes, for Lévy, the fault line in the relations between artists and philosophers – namely Plato’s assertion that the reflection of reality by visual means is inherently inferior to reality itself. The first space (the exhibition is divided into seven “sequences,” or stations) is a type of cave in which viewers are asked to become those cave dwellers bound by chains who, in the philosopher’s parable, see only the shadow of the objects that exist outside.
In contrast to Plato’s prisoners (who refuse to believe one of their number who escapes and discovers the real world), the visitors to the exhibition are of course aware of the two worlds, the real and the artistic. Yet they are still invited to be impressed by the power of the “shadows on the wall” − the works of art.
Because it is first of all the philosopher within me and not the Jew within me [who conceived this]. The Jew arrived later. He is very much present in the exhibition [not least through a large number of Jewish and Israeli artists], but he was not there at the first moment,” Lévy explains.
The second station, which is very Christian in character, refers to what Lévy presents as the brilliant ploy by artists of making the image sacred. This is represented by St. Veronica. In the Christian tradition, she places a kerchief on the face of the suffering Jesus as he carries the cross on which he will be crucified; his image is miraculously imprinted on the kerchief. Lévy makes this event the moment at which the image acquires an unchallenged status, in religion and elsewhere. It is a moment that foments a turning point, in contrast to Plato’s firm stance. Lévy commends “the courage of the painters who invented and adopted Veronica [who does not explicitly appear in the Gospels]. This involved theoretical, theological and artistic daring that stunned me.” The small room that is devoted to Veronica contains 15th-century Flemish work, but also Andy Warhol’s print of Jackie Kennedy’s veiled face. There is even a green icon by the Israeli artist Joshua Borkovsky. It is all amazingly precise.
The next significant turning point on the track delineated by Lévy comes with Nietzsche. “Someone arrives and says [to the artists], ‘Stop trying to do better than the others [the philosophers] − do something else, go to a different place.’” In this section of the exhibition, titled “Counter-Being” (“Contre être”), Lévy presents the painter liberated from the bonds of representing the real world. No longer a shadow in Plato’s Cave, but a free flame of its own. He then leads the viewer, not without a smile, to the painters’ revenge on the philosophers, with artists who ridicule the thinkers.
The next station brings the philosophers’ revenge on the painters, in the form of conceptual art, which slips out of the shackles of aesthetics and sometimes loses itself in the labyrinth of the idea and the word, which trump the image.
Finally, we arrive at the last sequence, beautiful and heartening. This is a kind of moment of reconciliation, which exhibits artists who can think like philosophers without purporting to defeat them in the arena of ideas. Here we find a marvelous noble portrait of Tintoretto juxtaposed to an equally marvelous (angry) prophet by Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Is the conclusion also a happy ending?
“I wanted to show I am not attached to any of the assumptions I presented in the six previous stations,” Lévy smiles. “Like a writer who is slightly present in all the characters he created in his novel, but is not entirely present in any of them.”
The success of Lévy’s adventure is due not only to the ease with which he cruises between the philosophical texts, or his precise and challenging choices in artworks. The power of the exhibition resides in its Sisyphean attempt to find bridges between the visual and verbal expressions of an idea, with the tacit admission that there is no way to bridge completely the inherent disparity between them.
Does the visual succeed in replacing the verbal, and vice versa?
“No, but that is all they think about,” Lévy says. “The hidden desire of those who know how to use words is to succeed better than the painters, while the hidden ambition of the great painters is to convey more meaning than the wordsmiths. I don’t know if they succeed, but there has been no literature without the desire to be equal to painting, and no painting without the desire to be equal to philosophy.”
The journey through the exhibition is accompanied by a booklet that is distributed to visitors, which Lévy wrote on the final white nights between the installation of the works and the festive opening for invited guests. The booklet contains a concise explanation of each of the seven stations and a brief (and often eye-opening) statement about each work. Visitors go through the exhibition with the booklet reverently, drink up every word, determined to understand. The question to be put to the curator, then, is: Why this obsessive need to explain?
“It derives from my not being Wittgensteinian. I believe that the world needs to be expressed vocally, that there is no need to reject the word, that it is always right to try to talk, and that we never talk too much. I am not one of those who believe in silence; I love the word.”
As he loves the images he compiled for an instant and from which he will part on November 13. Does he already feel the sadness of dismantling this temporary collection that arrived in the south of France from the four corners of the planet?
Not at all. He insists that he is not a collector in his soul, and that he has never collected works of art in order to be the owner of a collection.
“When you are the owner of pictures, they observe you from too close,” he cautions, and makes do with suggesting that all of us observe the works he has gathered for an instant.
Sefy Hendler , PhD
Département d’ histoire de l’art
L’Université de Tel Aviv
Photo : Bernard-Henri Lévy devant « Directive n°1″ et « Directive n°2″ de Guy Debord, Fondation Maeght, Saint-Paul de Vence. (c) Yann Revol