ART / Exhibition: Facial disfigurement: Andrew Graham-Dixon on the human face shattered and concealed in 'A Visage Decouvert' in Paris

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The Independent Culture
If the French no longer make much in the way of interesting art, they certainly know how to spice up its presentation. The ambition of earlier generations of avant-garde French artists, to revise the canons and conventions of taste, seems to have passed to the bureaucrats whom they once despised: it has become a virtual commonplace to note that the most startling gestures of aesthetic intent in France, in recent years, have taken the form not of new painting or sculpture but of new museums (Orsay) or new additions to old ones (the Louvre's pyramid).

While these may not always have been well judged - Orsay's briefly fashionable relegation of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism to the margins of nineteenth-century salon art now looks suspect - they have fostered the suspicion that French cultural radicalism has migrated from art to art administration.

Another symptom of this is the recent emergence, in France, of a new kind of exhibition curator: a mistily effusive polymath, a poet of museum display who sees the exhibition as an opportunity for self-expression rather than anything as dull and pedestrian as art historical exegesis. If anyone embodies this new species, it is Jean de Loisy, chief curator of the Cartier Foundation, in the Paris suburb of Jouy-en-Josas. And if any single exhibition could be said to represent the spirit of curatorial experiment for which de Loisy stands, it is his controversial new show, 'A Visage Decouvert'.

No one could accuse de Loisy of dullness, of adherence to tried and trusted curatorial formula. It is hard to say whether 'A Visage Decouvert' (its English title is 'The Naked Face') is quite properly described as an art exhibition. De Loisy himself prefers to describe it as a 'meditation' on its chosen theme, which is the representation of the human face.

The show's extremely heterogeneous contents, which range from mummified heads to Mapplethorpes, are disposed according to a logic which is playfully imaginative rather than solemnly explanatory: a Francis Bacon portrait might be found next to a French Romanesque carving of Satan, an Andy Warhol Jackie diptych beside a fragment of Egyptian tomb painting. It is a cross between assemblage and a cabinet of curiosities; if Jean de Loisy is the curator as artist, this is the exhibition as work of art. And like many works of art, it tends to be more convincing as spectacle than argument.

The exhibition opens with a room devoted to the human face seen partially, occluded or atomised, demonstrating its curator's fascination with enigmatic relics: the smiling mouth of a broken classical statue; the likeness of an eye preserved on a shard of Grecian urn; a modern work for video (by Harmut Lerch) which projects the image of a multitude of faces constantly, rapidly dissolving one into another before recognition of any - was that a man or a woman, old or young? - can occur. This introduces the conception of the human face and its significance - the mythology of the face, so to speak - that lies behind 'A Visage Decouvert'.

On inspection, this turns out to be a classically modern (and modern French) conception, despite the marshalling of all sorts of distinctly non-modern, unorthodox material in its support. The face, represented in art, is here taken to be the ultimate sign of the otherness, the inalienable mystery, of selves not our own. This is the point made by de Loisy's multi-cultural assemblage of fragmented faces, faces seen imperfectly or blurred beyond recognisability. The inference - whose French lineage can be traced to Sartre and Merleau-Ponty and Camus, who initiated what amounts to a Gallic philosophical obsession with the Otherness of Other People - is that to look someone (anyone) in the face is always an experience of incomprehension, bafflement, merely partial knowledge.

So the whole show could be said to rest on Jean de Loisy's inherited belief that 'the face is that which escapes us, that which cannot be understood'. This accounts both for the exhibition's unusual shape and its most apparently striking anomaly (given its subject), which is its refusal to include conventional portraiture. The portrait traditionally sets out to place and define its subjects, to indicate wealth, occupation, social standing. But the secure conception of the self which it might be said to represent is anathema to de Loisy, for whom the face represents anxiety, unknown passions: the dangerous mutability of existence, in short, as defined by the existentialists.

Even at its most apparently chaotic, his exhibition adheres to this guiding principle. Hence its preference for modernist reinventions and revisions of the portrait genre, its focus on images of the face that suggest the dark, troubling unaccountability of man: Picasso's Cubist portraits, which represent the face shattered, sundered; the attenuated faces of Giacometti, suspended on the brink of unrecognisability; the sexually obsessive portraits of Hans Bellmer, conflations of the facial and the genital where eyes metamorphose into anuses, mouths into vaginas; Francis Bacon's blurred likenesses of people whose mobile swipes of paint signal the volatility of flesh and the changeable nature of man. Hence, too, its focus on the kinds of non-Western art admired by Western modernists, in particular the wooden tribal masks of Africa and Oceania: so forbiddingly abstract, so excitingly alien, in de Loisy's terms.

Every polemicist has villains as well as heroes, and de Loisy is no exception. Chief among these, in 'A Visage Decouvert', is Charles Le Brun, court painter to Louis XIV and one of the pioneers of the pseudo-science of physiognomy. Le Brun, whose research in this field became a standard point of reference for later narrative painters, devised taxonomies of the face and its movements that were designed to confer absolute moral and expressive legibility on the human countenance. He divided the face into types according to animal similarities - owl-like, camel-like, horse-like, and so on - and ranged these in hierarchies of ethical worth. Men of the horse type, he believed, were nobler in spirit than men of the camel type. He produced equally bizarre (at least to modern eyes) classifications of human expressions, issuing the painters who followed him with guidelines like: 'Esteem: nostrils down, mouth open, pupils up'.

You need the catalogue to understand precisely what significance Le Brun's curious systems and diagrams have for de Loisy. For him, they represent not an historical oddity but a sin against the human soul, a terrible lie about man and his nature that has persisted into this century: de Loisy argues that Le Brun's ideas would eventually culminate in the racist, equally pseudo-scientific physiognomic theories of the Nazis.

Owning up, explicitly, to his motives for designing 'A Visage Decouvert' in the form that it has taken, de Loisy argues that 'Any exhibition on this theme must deliberately ignore genealogy, refute history, set aside geographical difference, mix cultures and compare the incomparable. The true face is that which is indomitable, hidden, lawless, all that is excessive, in fact everything except order and routine.' De Loisy's anti-classificatory exhibition, with its calculated blurring of distinctions between the art of different times and places, represents a deliberate embrace of disorder. This is phrased as a form of enlightenment, a recognition that the human face is always immune to explanation. Defiance of customary curatorial practice, here, is a political gesture, a sign of contempt for the very spirit of classification and of a belief that all taxonomies are implicitly repressive.

Unconventional methods, maybe, but conventional thinking. De Loisy's show has its roots, not just in French existentialist philosophy, but in the writings of a later French philosophe, Michel Foucault - 'let us not forget Foucault', counsels one of the essays in the catalogue to the exhibition. Foucault wrote most famously about European attitudes to madness. In Madness and Civilisation he argued, broadly, that the history of the lunatic asylum is, in miniature, the history of Western civilisation's unenlightened desire to suppress the core of irrationality lodged in us all: to confine and exclude those, classed as 'insane', in whom its symptoms are most apparent. 'A Visage Decouvert' takes an analogous line on the history of the representation of the face in Western art, arguing that Le Brun's zeal for physiognomic classification represents another manifestation of the reluctance to acknowledge the true, limitless unpredictability of man. This is where the show begins to run into difficulties.

Although Jean de Loisy dreams of an escape from history and argues that 'the true face' can only be understood by those who have managed such a trick, he is, himself, completely steeped in the fashionable ideas of his time and place. The paradox of his position rests on his insistent belief in the possibility that the works assembled in 'A Visage Decouvert' might amount to something as grand and universal as 'a global vision' of man - a transhistorical, transgeographical being defined as The Unknowable Other. But this belief is, itself, anything but universal: it is rooted in the recent history of French thought. And there is something vaguely insulting about the show's reluctance to explore the social or historical dimensions of the African or Oceanic works that it contains. Jean de Loisy has appropriated all kinds of non-Western art, made for all sorts of different reasons, and put it at the service of an entirely modern Western idea of what it means to contemplate the face of a human being. What is odd in all this is that it seems, in a show so concerned with political correctness, so politically

incorrect: an act of barefaced cultural imperialism.

'A Visage Decouvert' continues at the Cartier Foundation, 3 Rue des Manufactures, Jouy-en-Josas, until 4 October.

(Photographs omitted)