Rrose C’est la Life: Agnès Thurnauer

Transgender Art

September 15, 2021By Heidi EllisonExhibitions, Farther Afield
"Execution de la Peinture" (2013).
“Exécution de la Peinture” (2013).

Many agreeable surprises are to be found in the French provinces, not the least of which are contemporary art spaces in the most unexpected places. One example is the Centre d’Art Contemporain at the Bouvet Ladubay winery in Saumur, which is currently presenting the work of French-Swiss artist Agnès Thurnauer in an exhibition called “Rrose C’est la Life.” And what could be better than a place that combines two of the greatest things produced by humans: art and wine.

Thurnauer’s work is inspired by a highly diverse range of artists, one of whom is Marcel Duchamp, the source of the exhibition’s title: Duchamp called his female alter ego Rrose Sélavy, a pun for “Eros, c’est la vie” (”Sex is life”). She also cites Piero della Francesca, Édouard Manet and Philip Guston as influences.

"Portrait Grandeur Nature (Marcelle Duchamp)" (2007).
“Portrait Grandeur Nature (Marcelle Duchamp)” (2007).

The works themselves are as diverse as the artists she admires, but common threads run between them, and unlike the work of many conceptual artists, they are a pleasure to look at. The sculptures in the series “Matrice/Assise” form letters in the spaces between their parts and also serve as benches. Letters also march across many of the paintings, sometimes forming words – many of them, like “probably,” “maybe,” etc., expressing doubt – and sometimes not. The “Portraits Grandeur Nature” series consists of nothing but letters on glossy “buttons” emblazoned with the names of famous artists, purposely misspelled so as to change their gender, e.g., Francine Bacon, Jacqueline Pollock, Louis Bourgeois, La Corbusier, a series she started in 2005 that expresses what she calls our “mental bisexuality.”

Her feminist stance also comes through in such works as “Exécution de la Peinture” (2013, pictured at the top of this page), in which a naked woman seen from the back paints a replica of the sad face of the barmaid in Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies Bergères” (1880), while a gang of loosely painted photographers point their lenses at the painter’s nude body, ignoring what she is doing. A replica of Manet’s “Olympia” is overpainted with a surprising number of French pet names for women, some sweet (“mon adorée”), some not so sweet (“ma salope”), but most of which infantilize women or put them on a pedestal, when they are not insulting them.

"Time" (2020).
“Time” (2020).

“Rose” means “pink” in French, of course, and that is another theme that runs through the exhibition. For Thurnauer, pink is not for little girls but is a “transgender color.” In this context, we might note that certain recurring images in her work, like the simple, phallic forms of the “Big-Big & Bang Bang” series, seen in the painting “Time,” could easily be given sexual interpretations, but the artist herself refrains from claiming such associations.

"Mapping the Studio (Rose #8)" (2020).
“Mapping the Studio (Rose #8)” (2020).

This mini-retrospective covering 25 years of Thurnauer’s work is refreshing and invigorating. It closes in only a few weeks, and I recommend a visit to the beautiful town of Saumur in the Loire Valley to see it. If you go, take the time to visit the amazing cellars of the Bouvet Ladubay winery, once quarries for the blond tuffeau stone Saumur is built from. The walls of the cellar, a sort of “underground cathedral” that can be visited on foot or by bicycle (they are that extensive), are decorated with reliefs carved directly into the walls by sculptor Philippe Cormand. After the visit, don’t neglect to taste the “fine bubbles” of the historic winery’s Saphir Brut de Loire, an excellent sparkling wine.

Note: Agnès Thurnauer’s “Matrice/Assise” letter sculptures can also be seen in the permanent exhibition at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris and on the Square de la Minoterie in the Paris suburb of Ivry-sur-Seine.


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