Love's labours lost

Love is blind, they say, but not so blind we should be fooled into mistaking the miscellaneous collection of sexual imagery now on show in Paris for a serious analysis of `Amours'

With "Amours", this summer's main attraction, the Fondation Cartier in Paris proves, among other things, that the Infuriatingly Gallic Themed Exhibition is not yet a thing of the past. The theme, in this case, is the oldest one of all. In the name of Love, a bewildering miscellany - drawings, paintings, statues, ethnographic items and objets de vertu, variously amorous, erotic and fetishistic in character - has been assembled. The result is a kind of cave, or grotto, devoted to the polymorphous passions of mankind. The works are intriguingly, if not always explicably, juxtaposed and it is difficult to say whether the effect is meant to be titillating or edifying or both.

The exhibition begins with a clumsy proposition: a huge pink simulacrum of a woman's breast, for which the relentlessly crude soi-disant experimental artist Cesar is to be held responsible. Breast, 1966, may or may not have been inspired by the martyrdom of St Agatha. The amputated gland, hung on the wall like a stag's head in a trophy room, is certainly an extremely unpleasant object.

Moving briskly on, the visitor is invited to peruse old newsreel footage of the abdication crisis of King Edward VIII, playing over and over again on a television screen set into one wall of the gallery. He is there, presumably, as a symbol: the king who became a fool for love.

Nearby we encounter the 14th-century BC Pharaoh, Amenophis IV Akhnaten, or at least part of him - like the Cheshire Cat, he survives only as his smile, a pair of full and somewhat cruel carved lips, perpetually amused by who knows what. Perhaps the Pharaoh's stone mouth was included to suggest the sensual abandon of despotic rulers. An adjacent glass case contains additional incriminating evidence in the form of a marvellously wrought object said to have been commissioned in the early 18th century by the erotomane Emperor Frederick IV of Denmark. It is a pocket-sized box in which lurks a tiny spring-mounted phallus and testes, ingeniously modelled in gold and mother of pearl.

"Amours" is not quite the life-enhancing celebration of love and lovers promised by its chief organiser, Herve Chandes, in his preface to the catalogue. There he writes: "Whether they are the details of a body or face; representations of a couple entwined; static emotions; angry gestures; happy or restrained ... the works do not tell a story, do not pigeonhole the story of the emotion of love according to taste, mores, fashion; they express love as a surprise, a light-headedness, a fulfilment."

Making allowances for translation (and further allowances for the fact that the majority of essays in French catalogues of this genus are written in a language that few Frenchmen would recognise as their own), it has to be said that this is untrue. For one thing, the assembled works reflect infrequently on love and much more often on sex - which is not, of course, always quite the same thing. For example, the exhibition contains some of Henry Fuseli's early 19th-century erotic drawings, which are documents not of affection but of an imprisoning masochistic sexual fixation. They are distressingly (or arousingly, depending on your perspective) single- minded in their depiction of the nature of the painter's fantasy. One drawing in particular sticks in the memory: a small but concise picture of an elaborately coiffed young woman, leather dildo strapped to her waist, energetically sodomising a bound man.

This picture has been hung in an out-of-the-way corner of the exhibition, a corridor-cum-cul-de-sac - perhaps because it is precisely the kind of work of art that contradicts the airy-fairy libertarian rhetoric in which "Amours" has been bathed. The pointed plurality of the exhibition's title - not Love, after all, but Loves - implies both a cosily liberal view of sex and a lurking didactic intent. The implication is that anyone who is narrow-minded enough to believe that there is just one right way to love another human being need only come to the Fondation Cartier for a corrective course in sexual tolerance. Confronted by touching images of Lesbian Love (a blurred photograph by Cartier-Bresson of a pair of young Mexican girls embracing naked on a bed), of Gay Love (Robert Mapplethorpe's Charles and Jim 1974), of Black Love (Seydou Keita's portrait of a husband and wife in Bamako, Mali), we will all throw off our mind-forged manacles of prejudice. We will become happy, healthy members of an emancipated and enriched commonweal that embraces the broadest possible range of human sexuality.

This seems unconvincing partly (but only partly) because of the opportunistic flavour of the entire enterprise. The organisers appear to have been rather too happy to exhibit more or less whatever they could persuade various private owners and museums to lend them, regardless of the effect that this might have on the coherence of their exhibition. One consequence of this is that "Amours" ends up amounting to considerably less than the sum of its parts. Fragonard's drawing, The Lovers' Bed, is a summary masterpiece of rococo eroticism, showing us an unmade bed with sheets that billow like clouds, and sketching, by implication, a fantasy of being light enough to inhabit such a place - a dream of being as light as a feather, as weightless and malleable as a rococo god or goddess supported on painted clouds. There is little to be gained, however, and no new insight into Fragonard to be derived, from seeing such a work placed arbitrarily in the same company as Sophie Calle's recent still-life photograph The Erection, or Andy Warhol's Black Hearts (a late Warhol that is more playing-card than love letter).

The main flaw of "Amours" is the yawning gap between the moral which Monsieur Chandes would have his audience draw from the exhibits that he has selected - the half-hippy sentiment that there is room enough in this world for many kinds of loving - and the actual effect of the exhibits themselves. Fuseli's drawings embarrass his thesis precisely because they do not "express love as a surprise, a light-headedness, a fulfilment"; they envisage desire, rather, as a compulsion. As Fuseli knew too well, the fact of sexual difference is not necessarily a cause for celebration, and sexual desire in all its multiplicity has plenty of hateful aspects. In Susan Sontag's words (from her fine essay The Pornographic Imagination), human sexuality is "a highly questionable phenomenon... one of the demonic forces in human consciousness".

The uneasiness at the core of "Amours" is best encapsulated, perhaps, by the difference between just two of the exhibits. Near the entrance to the show, a short film by Andre Bonzal called Gate 4 - expressly commissioned for the occasion - is being projected on a continuous loop. We see a group of people, some black, some white, some young, some old, waiting in an airport. They look tense, sad, weird, dysfunctional. Then those for whom they have been waiting - their lovers, wives, husbands, children - arrive, and they rush to meet them. They hug. They smile. They are restored to humanity.

Turning away from this short and touching parable about the unifying power of love, we are instantly confronted by a Picasso painting of 1931 called The Kiss. A cartoon couple (but more sinister than comic) are not kissing so much as eating each other's faces. Their tongues are red daggers. Picasso recognised that desire is often inseparable (it certainly was in his case) from the desire to conquer and absorb others. He knew how savage, how unacceptable, how unsociable love can be.

`Amours' is at the Fondation Cartier, Paris (00 331 42 18 56 50) to 2 Nov

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?