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Aix Marks the Spot: European Capital of Culture

Post-Impressionists, Rodin, Photography, Contemporary Art – so where are all the visitors to the European Capital of Culture?
Visitors to the European Capital of Culture Marseille-Provence may gradually suspect that the organisers have two underlying aims. The first is to celebrate the extraordinary achievement of artists in responding to the landscape and culture of the south. 1The second, and less predictable, is to restore some measure of racial harmony to France’s bruised self-image through positing a holistic vision of the Mediterranean in which European and North African culture are conjoined. Since April the organisers have delivered an impressive programme of exhibitions, theatre, music and dance as well as mouth-watering festivals of gastronomy and wine. Currently, the best exhibitions on offer are ‘The Studio of the Midi’, which is split between Marseille and Aix-en-Provence, and ‘The Black and the Blue’ at the new Murcem in Marseille. The latter is one of several spectacular 2013 venues, whose exterior the visitor ascends on foot like the Beaubourg. Ironically, since the Mediterranean is its theme, in doing so, one catches only glimpses of the sea through the organisers’ offices which form its outer shell. Either of these exhibitions alone would be worth the plane fare, particularly since visitors now have a shorter waiting time for un-booked tickets – in our case, about three minutes – than they will have to enjoy an uninterrupted view of some of France’s best-known masterpieces. Interestingly too, they may also pick up on the contrast between the way in which the first agenda robs the artworks of their historical context while the second shoe-horns paintings and sculpture into a particular political argument.
For example, the hero of ‘The Studio of the Midi’ seems to be the Mediterranean’s light whose transparency makes distant objects appear closer and whose intensity makes them seem brighter and more tangible. This leads the organisers to reframe the familiar comparison between Impressionism and Post-Impressionism as a contrast between a perceptual and a conceptual response to landscape. 4They then imply that as a direct result of their exposure to the Mediterranean, artists came to concern themselves with the flatness of the picture plane and with the expressive power of their emotions. Hence no longer would they be concerned with merely copying nature through the conventions of perspective. This argument, which is strongly reminiscent of Roger Fry, holds good in relation to the architectonic objectivity of Cezanne’s work. Yet, ironically, some of the most interesting works in ‘The Studio of the Midi’ are flickering landscapes by Renoir and Monet in which the brushwork is more diffuse. Although less impressive than Cezanne’s, both they and the work of lesser known Post-Impressionists such as Camoin and Valtat are a revelation.
As a Provencal artist, Cézanne is also at odds with what the organisers call the ‘timeless’ culture of the south. His portrayals of gardeners stolidly playing cards contrast the patronising quirkiness of Signac’s folk scenes. His statuesque bathers differ from the cheesecake nudes of Maillol and Friesz. The hard-won shapes of what Rilke called his ‘cooking apples’ underline the artificiality of the bouquets on Matisse’s hotel balconies. The idea of the south as a vanished Eden of Arcadian pleasures takes its inspiration from classical antiquity whose ruins can be found increasingly as one travels south from the Pont du Gard. As part of the year, the Museum of Antiquities in Arles has organised an exhibition of 130 sculptures, which juxtaposes particular pieces by Rodin with classical works from his collection. Unsurprisingly, the old goat’s portrayals of women look sour and misogynistic beside the openness and dignity of the classical works. As so often in the programme, the comparison resonates far beyond the particular exhibition.
Plato famously described the great civilizations of Europe and North Africa as grouped around the Mediterranean like frogs around a pond. Yet there is little reference to the unity of the classical world in ‘The Black and the Blue’ whose title refers to what the organisers assert is the contrast between the region’s ‘shade and light, suffering and hope’. Instead the exhibition starts in the eighteenth century at the time when its host city Marseille became a jumping-off point for French colonialism. In a companion exhibition at the Murcem the organisers have identified four key aspects of Mediterranean culture: agriculture, religion, human rights and a curiosity about other civilisations. This categorisation conceals the contradictions between, say, religious freedom and human rights or between European expansion and the fortress nature of the French-led CAP. At the same time the organisers’ exclusion of the Middle Ages allows them to sidestep the contentious history of Christianity and Islam, which many would identify with the formation of Europe. Instead, they start with Napoleon’s ‘expedition’ to Egypt and his much-vaunted proclamation about his respect for Islam. Thereafter the organisers use words like ‘colonialism’ and ‘imperialism’ sparingly and ‘Edward Said’ and ‘Frantz Fanon’ not at all. The modern development of Egypt is portrayed as a collaborative exercise between the reformer Mehemet Ali and a handful of free-thinking St Simonists. The organisers ignore the links between industrialisation and the growth of the state and nationalism and imperialism. In the twentieth century they lump together the history of Smyrna, Barcelona, Marseille, Setif, Jerusalem and Algiers in the same way that they equate the Arab Spring with anti-capitalist demonstrations in Greece and Spain.
In part this is an inevitable result of the exhibition’s fascinating geographical and historical breadth and in part by the ballast of other more specialised exhibitions such as ‘A Taste for the Orient’ in Aix. What is interesting, however, is the varied success with which the organisers use painting, sculpture, photography and film to illustrate their themes. The show kicks off with Miro’s large abstract painting, ‘Blue II’, which they presume is ‘optimistic’, and Goya’s ‘The Disasters of War.’ It ends with a juxtaposition of Luigi Ghirri’s photographs of sunbathing tourists and Franco Zecchin’s pictures of the mafia. Both are dwarfed by Malcolm Morley’s brazen pin-up, The Cradle of Civilisation with an American Woman, which like the Ghirris, recalls the vanished Eden of the ‘The Studio of the Midi’.
One of the most powerful images in the exhibition is Picasso’s ‘Minotaur’, a monstrous hybrid, reminiscent of Rodin’s scenes of sexual ravishment and of Pasiphae’s rape of Europa, which gives the continent its name. Post-coital bulls complete with their attendant maidens can be found throughout Provence, not least outside the Museé des Beaux-Arts in Marseilles where ‘The Studio of the Midi’ is being shown. The city itself has its own creation myth in which a swarthy Phoenician traveller named Protis happens to turn up on the very day in 600 BC on which the local chieftain is choosing a husband for his daughter. Unlike many cities in the south of France, Marseille seems to be a genuine melting pot which has escaped the otherwise widespread popularity of Le Pen. In its hotel foyers, however, you may come across a government poster with an image evocative of Revolutionary France which reminds guests of the ban on wearing veils. In a week dominated by Bradley Manning’s conviction we noted the exhibition’s inclusion of an early twentieth album of photographs from the French embassy in Cairo, which in a chilling reminder of Foucault documented local undesirables such as terrorists and prostitutes. Close by it was Larissa Sansour’s video installation showing a tourist glimpsing the Dome of the Rock from the doorway of her airport lift. Not only did the partially blocked view from the elevator contrast the more tendentious political pieces in the show but it mirrored the blinkered views of our hotel’s national news channels.
The power of film was also apparent in the exhibition’s mesmerising early footage of Mediterranean ports and in its seaside scenes similar to those pioneered by the Lumiere brothers, who made the world’s first film of a train entering the station at the nearby resort of La Ciotat in 1895. Context is all, however. For example, nearby was a film of a dramatic but fictional voyage by North African boat-people, which ended in their arrest by policemen conveniently wearing Italian uniforms. We saw it again as part of The Bridge, the exhibition at Marseilles’ Museum of Contemporary Art. There it seemed much less interesting than Olivier Jobard’s photographs of a clandestine journey by a real- life immigrant from the Cameroons to Europe, which included the response of his fellow travellers to the better-dressed and no doubt better-educated protagonist. In The Bridge the importance of scale and context was also demonstrated by the juxtaposition of Beat Streuli’s photographs of pedestrians in Marseilles with Moholy–Nagy’s 1920’s film of street scenes in the city. Whereas Streuli’s huge work seemed tedious and inflated, Moholy-Nagy’s editing introduced ideas of narrative and characterisation and provided a fascinating complement to Marquet’s paintings of the busy life of the harbour in ‘The Studio of the Midi’.
The pieces at the Museum of Contemporary Art were mainly un-commissioned works on the theme of place and movement. Orozco’s concertinaing of a 1970’s Citroen was cleverly juxtaposed with Thomas Mailaender’s series of photographs, ‘Cathedral’, showing cars piled high with their owners’ possessions. Both recalled Barthes famous comment that the Citroen DS was the cathedral of the twentieth century. Such wry humour was shared by works such as Dan Perjovschi’s dystopian drawings on glass and Francis Alys’ ‘Politics of Rehearsal’. This video from 2005 shows Western classical musicians and an Asian stripper performing simultaneously on a stage while a voice-over comments on President Truman’s 1949 speech describing how the global south would catch up with the development of the west. Equally impressive was Pierre Delavie’s outdoor installation,‘Detournement’, named after Guy Debord’s famous concept of quotation and displacement. It comprised a video projection onto the wall of the stock exchange of the image of a street adjacent to the building. The light levels in the piece were constantly adapted to those of the street so that it appeared a coherent part of its surroundings throughout the day and night.
Among other highlights in and near Marseilles are exhibitions at the Museé Cantini and the Chateau Borely and shows of Picasso’s ceramics and Dufy’s paintings. In Aix a refurbished chapel has been opened to house Jean Planque’s wonderful collection of Picassos, Braques and other twentieth century artists. The photographic festival continues in Arles while visitors to the year can also see Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse, which towers above the artistic landmarks of Marseille as Mont St Victoire does above Aix. So what’s not to like? Nimes near Arles contains so many wonderful antiquities that its football team are known as ‘Les Crocs’, a reminder of the Roman legionaries who were stationed there after their campaign in Egypt. Less than an hour from Aix near Cildo Meirelles’ installation at the Abbey Silvacane is the wonderful sculpture park of Chateau La Coste. This combines superb pieces by Louise Bourgeois, Richard Serra Tunga, Liam Gillick and Sean Scully with the chance to sample the chateau’s wines in a pavilion built by Tadeo Andao. A little further on is the Marquis de Sade’s chateau, Camus’ grave and Chateau Lourmarin in the spectacular hill country of the Luberon. While gate-crashing yet another opening in the picture-postcard village of Menerbes, which Peter Mayle made famous through ‘A Year in Provence’, I was tempted to ask the tricolour-sashed mayor whether the 2013 year had been good for tourists. Silly me: as I watched him handing out glasses of white wine and canapés made with truffles for which the region is famous, I remembered that art is always good for business. Even if it does not always say exactly what its patrons want.
Images in order:
Picasso Minotaur
Renoir Landscape
Cezanne Bathers
Albert Marquet Marseille

Posted by author: Gerald
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3 thoughts on “Aix Marks the Spot: European Capital of Culture

  • This sounds wonderful. I will have a week near Avignon at the beginning of November and hope that it hasn’t all closed down by then.

  • It does sound amazing. Over thirty years ago I spent six months living on the French Mediterranean. It wasn’t Marseille, but Cannes. I worked night duty and didn’t seem to need much sleep in these days so, apart from dozing on the beach, I visited many of the wonderful museums in that part of the world and saw works by Matisse, Chagall, Picasso, Leger, Fragonard and others. I even wrote to Marc Chagall but, sadly, he never replied. I think it is true that the light in that part of the world has a special quality. It is hard to describe- slightly lucid, limpid, pearly. I have been to Aix once and Marseille once. I would love to see some of these exhibitions, but it is not going to be possible.

  • I comment as someone who lives in the region and has failed to see anything that’s going on Marseilles this year. Marseilles and I just do not get on. Until recently, I used to go to the musée Cantini, in the days when Véronique Serrano was directrice there. Her masterpiece, of the shows I saw, was the Braques landscape exhibition in the year of the Cézanne centenary. She has now moved to the musée Bonnard in Le Cannet, where she is doing a very decent job. I went to see the other half of le Grand Atelier du Midi show at Aix early this summer. There were many fine works on show, but otherwise I felt that the whole show was politically charged in a deeply conservative way. I found it particularly upsetting that works were paired in such a way that, for example, a Matisse was placed in comparative position by a work with a similar subject by some minor, but clearly serious artist. The latter, of course, comes off very badly in such a comparison, when the same person’s work would look adequately and decently interesting if shown on its own or in similar company. So the politics of an uncritical view of ‘landscape art in our home region’ is also deeply underlain by a kind of connoisseurial snobbery. I couldn’t get a catalogue because I was deprived of my bag (sketchbook, notebook etc) at security and didn’t think to retrieve my credit cards. So I don’t know what line the catalogue takes, but I saw nothing in the texts in the galleries that would give me a more positive view of the show. Gerald’s blog is fine, I have no problem with that. But I do suggest that if you live and work in this region as an artist, there is a lot to be disappointed with and be frustrated by.

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