The façade of the Maison Rouge is currently adorned with a work by photographers Pierre & Gilles depicting a winking Marie France, the former stage icon of venues such as the Alcazar and the Palace. Further on in the exhibition, the artists’ muse can be seen beaming back at the viewer once more, this time on an album cover. Je ne me quitterai jamais – “I will never be unfaithful to myself” – reads the title of the 45 rpm. There is an air of nostalgia throughout L’Esprit Français, an exhibition that captures the atmosphere and the struggles of the two decades that spanned from the end of the sixties until the end of the eighties. This is a story of utopias: derisory and necessary, yet ever persistent.
Certain works are provocative, such as the 1973 painting by Jacques Monory that shows a child aiming a gun at the viewer. That canvas is symbolic of an era when children were forced to grow up too quickly and, like their elders, also risked falling victim to solitude.
Further along, Piège pour une exécution capitale (1971) by Michel Journiac brings us face-to-face with the guillotine. You can’t get more French than that! Below, an entire wall is covered by a series of works by Kiki Picasso in the red, white and blue of his homeland. However, the accompanying text - “It makes no sense to leave red, white and blue to these French idiots” – is anything but patriotic.
The French spirit that this exhibition simultaneously revives and reinvents is at once critical, irreverent and anti-establishment. Oh, how we miss it today! Newspapers, leaflets, posters, film clips, videos, extracts from TV shows: an entire era is brought back to life in a surge of memories. And this is also the opportunity to discover rare items, such as notebooks belonging to the Dziga Vertov group – founded by Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin – and a vast sculpture by Raymonde Arcier.
“It’s all about shining a light on the cultural mutations of the past, but also reactivating certain energies in the present,” explain co-curators Guillaume Désanges and François Piron. An ode to resisting the status quo, this exhibition injects colour and diversity into a history of French art that has become all too monochrome and mundane.