Alexander Calder: The Parisian Years, Pompidou Centre, Paris
William Eggleston, Cartier Foundation, Paris
Andy Warhol in Paris, Grand Palais, Paris
Three Parisian exhibitions lend a distinctively Gallic flavour to three artists from the US
Sunday 12 April 2009
The Obamas may have left Paris off their European tour, but a trio of US blockbusters in the city makes it clear where world power lies even so. At the Pompidou, a two-floor exhibition of early Alexander Calders is spawning round-the-block queues. Westward, the Grand Palais' show of Warhol portraits is full of mystified Parisians scratching their heads over Edie Sedgwick. And on the Left Bank, the Cartier Foundation is packing them in with a show of new work by William Eggleston, a photographer even more lionised in France than in his native Tennessee. If proof were needed of the Pax Americanum, then Paris this spring is it.
Or sort of. Actually, as often here, the take on these American giants seems noticeably Francocentric. As with Tocqueville on US democracy, the view is that all genius is merely a quaint variant of French genius, anything clever by definition originating in France.
Thus the Calder exhibition is subtitled Les années Parisiennes and focuses on the seven years the artist spent in the city. Annoyingly, the chauvinistic belief that his genius was shaped by exposure to things French is amply proven by the works on show.
Arriving in Paris in 1926 as a 28-year-old engineer, Calder was soon rubbing shoulders with Mondrian, Miró and Duchamp. Le tout Montparnasse fell under the spell of Sandy's Circus, a Little Top of mechanical marionettes which tumbled clownishly or flew through the air with the greatest of ease. From these, Calder moved on to an energetically wiggling Josephine Baker – then taking Paris by storm in La Revue Nègre – and thence to wire drawings-in-space of the banana'd dancer and others. By 1931, these air sculptures had already transmogrified into the mobiles and stabiles we think of as Calder's, the artist's mechanical aptitude married to the wit of Duchamp, the organic forms of Miró and the red-yellow-blue palette of Mondrian. This show may be the most revealing you'll ever see about what made Calder Calder, and see it you should.
William Eggleston hasn't gripped the British imagination as he has the French, this being in part a result of the 69-year-old American's long association with the Cartier Foundation. Eggleston is best known as a chronicler of life in the Deep South, a man who uses his trademark saturated colours to evoke a mood of wordless unease. The Cartier being Parisian, it has commissioned the photographer to turn his talents to Paris – Eggleston is currently three years into chronicling the city, and the Cartier's show is of his Parisian first fruits.
The first thing to strike you about is that they reveal an odd fact: Paris is green. In Eggleston's quasi-liturgical palette, Memphis is blood-red and Mississippi big-sky blue. You might have thought his colourist eye would see the French capital as Impressionist grey or haute couture pink, but no. Eggleston's Paris is green – the bilious turquoise of RATP buses, the sharp tint of neon crosses outside chemists' shops, the ectoplasmic green of lights reflected on a wet pavement. The idea of being sent out to wander Paris seems Baudelaireanly old fashioned, but Eggleston the flâneur has come home with something entirely new and yet entirely known. I suppose the measure of good photography is that it makes you see familiar things as alien, and these photographs do just that. Paris will always be green for me now. As to the Kandinsky-ish drawings Eggleston has chosen to show alongside his new photographs: we must forgive great men their foibles.
And the Warhol? The Gallicism here lies in the po-facedness of its curating, an abiding sense that the French don't really get Andy. Warhol was not so much a great artist as a great moralist: he saw the world as a dark joke. The joke included the market for his own portraits of rich men – the millions of dollars they queued up to pay for a square of cheap canvas onto which some Factory drone had silkscreened a Polaroid. The cleverness of a Warhol lies in the sense that it is itself part of the world's corruption; but unlike, say, the Disaster multiples, the portraits take this empathy too far, being too obviously slick and cynical. Herding a great many of them into one space, as here, breaks the Warholian spell. And trying to analyse the portraits via the tenets of art history is like explaining Benny Hill through Cicero. Still, this is a pretty show and it's springtime in Paris: so go anyway.
Calder to 20 Jul; William Eggleston to 21 Jun; Andy Warhol to 13 Jul
Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boymusic
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