Significant Moments

Contemporary Art in France
, Catherine Millet

Millet, editor of Artpress, starts this substantial, glossy art book with an acknowledgement in the preface that writing a contemporary history is a 'paradoxical undertaking'. She goes on, however, to explain how in the 60s the term 'contemporary art' started to be used in place of 'avant-garde' or 'modernist' as, for the first time in the 20th century, the general public took an interest in the art of their own time. In France the best example was Picasso's sell out show at the Grand Palais, in 1966; and this is roughly the starting point of her narrative.

The most significant moment in the early part of this story was when an American,  Robert Raushenberg won the Grand Prize for Painting in the Venice Biennale of 1964. This was a prize that according to Millet the School of Paris 'had come to regard as its own property'. This ignominy served to mark the end of an era in French art, and ushered in a new one that is the subject of this book.

In the early chapters Millet describes the Dadaist origins of artists like Pierro Manzoni, Yves Klein, Yves Tinguely and Ben Vautier who first became active in the very early 60s, and who theatrically pre-empted much of the more austere conceptual art that emerged out of the US later in the decade.

She goes on to describe how, for most of the sixties Op Art, with artists like Victor Vasarely and Jesus-Rafael Soto was also widely visible in France and crossed over - as it did in the UK - into fashion and design.

Unlike the UK however, French art did not have a pop-art movement as such, and according to Millet, French artists were suspicious of the motives, and apparent political indifference, of artists like Warhol. Nor was there the same kind of move towards a reductionistic dematerialisation of the art object that was an important feature of the early 70s in anglo-american art. Instead in France one group of artists centred on Daniel Buren and another called Support-surface, sought to examine the material nature of painting, by reducing it to its bare essentials. The latter group had the intellectual support of Tel Quel through the figure of Marcelin Pleynet and therefore drew on a heady mix of psychoanalysis and Maoist theory.

Millet makes much of the contribution of a particular brand of socially aware post-conceptual art - often made using new media that appeared in the late 70s and early 80s in France: the best known proponents of these diaristic, quasi-narrative works being Christian Boltanski, Sophie Calle, Robert Filliou and Annette Messager. Many of these artists featured in Documenta 5 under the title 'individual mythologies'.

As in the UK the French art-world was rocked in 1980 by the return of figurative painting, with the Venice Biennale that year featuring a number of German and Italian artists whose work, with the support of a buoyant new art-market, challenged, decisively, the then prevailing attitude of antipathy towards painting.

Millet conveys a sense that the French art-world responded by scrabbling around to create revisionist histories of art that suggested a lineage through Bonnard and Balthus through to the new figuration or 'figuration libre' that newly championed artists represented. (A similar process took place in Britain with the invention of the School of London, starring Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud). In France the psychedelic cartoon imagery of Robert Combas was one of the beneficiaries, and later artists like Gerard Garouste who overtly borrowed imagery from classical and renaissance sources.

The first edition of Millet's book was published in 1987, and up to this point the text has a compelling flow and coherence. The 3rd edition however has a chapter on the 90s that appears to have been tacked onto the earlier sections and is written as a sketchy, provisional, and overall less than convincing account.

Of course one explanation for this increasing sketchiness is that going into the 90s national boundaries in relation to fine art practice have become less and less meaningful. In fact we have reached a point where it has become a wholly dubious and anachronistic exercise to present a history of contemporary art based on nationhood. In the UK, for example, in the 90s when we were lucky to have had a particularly vibrant art scene, many of the best artists were from the EU who preferred to live and show in London.

The book handles well, and has some great pictures (visual art is about pictures after all!). Although it is interesting, absorbing and well-written it is this erosion of the traditional boundaries of language and culture that seems the most important angle to understand in relation to the recent history of visual art in France: an angle somewhat ignored in this otherwise excellent book.

       Rupert White 2007