A la Française
The French artist Martial Raysse, born in 1936, had his 15 minutes of fame in the 1960s, but since then seems to have been more or less forgotten except in his home county, and even there he has been rather neglected. Now the Centre Pompidou is finally giving him a long-promised retrospective.
Before Warhol was wowing the world with his Campbell soup cans and multiple Marilyns, Raysse – one of the Nouveaux Réalistes, a group that also included Arman, César, Christo, Yves Klein, Niki de Saint Phalle, Daniel Spoerri and Jean Tinguely – was producing distinctive Pop Art works inspired by the world of advertising and consumer society.
The show begins with a few assemblages – “Trees” (1959-60) made of lamp stands topped with clusters of plastic containers and other detritus – obviously inspired by the work of his fellow New Realists – but soon moves on to pure Pop. This is where Raysse excelled. His most famous painting is undoubtedly “La Grande Odalisque” (1964), a modern-day take on the famous painting by Ingres in psychedelic colors, part of the “Made in Japan” series based on Japanese postcards of Old Master paintings by Cranach the Elder, Tintoretto and others, and so twice removed from the originals.
The show is worth seeing just for the sheer exuberance and humor of Raysse’s work from the ’60s (he lived, by the way, in New York City and Los Angeles between 1963 and ’68), as he joyfully experimented with materials and techniques. Objects pop out of frames, neon outlines the lips of a woman (in, for example, “High Tension Painting,” 1965), and films are incorporated into paintings. He takes kitsch to new levels with such works as “And Here is the Dawn Again” (1965), in which a neon sun rises behind a carefully painted nature scene. Was he the first to use the now-familiar trick of incorporating viewers into a work, as he did in “Identity: Now You Are a Martial Raysse” (1967), with a TV monitor mounted on a face-shaped backdrop showing the visitors looking at it? He also made a number of absurdist films during the 1960s, several of which are on view in the exhibition.
What do artists do when the heyday of the style that made their name is finished? Some just keep repeating themselves, while others revert to traditional or even neoclassical styles – Giorgio de Chirico is a prime example. Raysse, who seems to have floundered after giving up Pop Art, followed the latter path.
As he retreats from the world after moving to the French countryside in the 1970s, his vision turns dark, losing the bright colors, optimism and jubilance of the Pop years. Although he continued to experiment with techniques and styles, he doesn’t seem to settle down with any of them as he makes bronze sculptures and paints portraits, still lifes (there are a couple of really lovely ones here) and epic allegorical paintings, full of figures, events and landscapes, that seem to want to encompass the entire world. For me, these monumental works, which variously call to mind Hieronymus Bosch and James Ensor, are the most interesting of his later works, although I
“Poissons d’Avril” (2007). Photo: Arthus Boutin © Adagp, Paris 2014
really liked a few of the other paintings, especially “The Two Poets” (1991), in which two figures, one of them holding a knife, sit on a bench surrounded by rubble with an animal (a sort of half lamb, half dog) that is apparently about to be sacrificed standing in between them. Many of the portraits of individuals, however, seem to be deliberately ugly, almost repulsive.
Last December, a Raysse painting from 1964, “Quinze Août,” sold for nearly €2 million at auction, making him “the most expensive living French artist in the world.” That’s not saying much, however, compared to the recent sale of a Francis Bacon painting for over €100 million.
I recommend this exhibition especially for its first section, which is certain to cheer you up no matter what your mood, although the rest may put a damper on it.
While you are at the Pompidou Center, you might want to take it look at the rehang of the permanent modern art (1905-70) exhibition, which takes a welcome multicultural approach with art from around the world, a departure from the museum’s usual Western-centric point of view.
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