You'd be forgiven for asking whether the word "master" is a useful one to use of the 84-year-old French poster-tearer, Jacques Villeglé, particularly as it is unlikely, unless you have an interest in the Nouveau Réalisme of the 1960s, that you will ever have heard of him.
In which case you might also ask whether a work by Villeglé can really count as a masterpiece, a sine qua non of the term presumably being that the thing to which it is attached has been made by a master. All of which makes you wonder what Villeglé's ripped-up artworks are doing in an exhibition called Masterpieces, the opening show of the brand new Pompidou Centre in Metz, north-eastern France.
In case you weren't going to ask those questions, the show does it for you: to be accurate, it isn't called Masterpieces but Masterpieces?, in that sideways-on French way. According to the blurb, the new Pompidou's new exhibition "considers the notion of the masterpiece, past, present and future," which sounds intriguing until you think about it.
"Masterpiece" or chef-d'oeuvre or meisterwerk is a self-evidently flabby term, dating from a time – let's say, 1460 – when painting was found to be better than sculpture, a painter of historical scenes better than one of fruit, some history painters better than others and some works of those masters the best of the best of the best: et voilà, the masterpiece, perched atop art like a glacé cherry. Somewhere along the way – let's say 1913, the date of Marcel Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel, in this show – hierarchies of art came to be seen as ridiculous. Once that happened, "masterpiece" lost its meaning, although it didn't stop being used. It is now usually applied to the best-known work of any artist, as in the sentence "The Singing Butler is Jack Vettriano's masterpiece"; with which sobering thought I leave you.
Which is to say that the Pompidou-Metz's question "Does the word masterpiece have any meaning today?" elicits the answer "No". In case that wasn't clear, then the show makes it so by being stridently anti-hierarchical. The group of things whose mastery we are asked to ponder takes in not just painting and sculpture but the whole post-1913 rag-tag-and-bobtail of artistic practice, including video, installation, Outsider Art and bicycle wheels. Beyond that again, it includes plywood chairs as made by Jean Prouvé and, in maquette, French public art galleries built since 1937, the last being the one in which this show is held: the Centre Pompidou-Metz, by the Japanese architect, Shigeru Ban. If it is hard to say what a masterpiece is these days, it is easy to say what it is not. Ban has built some astonishing structures in his time, but the Pompidou-Metz, with its white plastic roof, isn't one of them. It has already been dubbed la casquette des Schtroumpfs (the Smurf's cap) by local wits, and looks like a provincial leisure centre.
So what is really going on here? Affecting to ponder the changing face of the masterpiece is a good excuse for clearing out your attic. The Pompidou-Metz, without a collection of its own, will rely on its mother-ship in Paris for loans, and most of the works in this show are from the Beaubourg's huge storerooms. Some of these are very blue-chip indeed: witness Giorgio de Chirico's Premonitory Portrait of Guillaume Apollinaire, Picasso's The Muse, works by Jackson Pollock, Brancusi and Yves Klein. But the Pompidou has always been a French institution, and its collection is understandably heavy on French art.
Side by side with the Pollocks and Mirós are objects by non-French artists working in Paris (Picasso, Brancusi), French-ish artists working abroad (Louise Bourgeois) and, last and least, French artists working in France. Among these are a number of what recent history has judged to be modern masters – Yves Klein, Jean Dubuffet, Henri Cartier-Bresson – but an awful lot more whose names are relatively little known beyond the périphérique.
You may, if you are of a suspicious turn of mind, sense historical revisionism going on here. Clearly, Masterpieces?, with its 800 works, 5,000 square metres of gallery space and ribbon-snipping by M Sarkozy, is meant to launch the Pompidou-Metz to a fanfare of trumpets. But in suggesting that there are no masterpieces any more – that the old hierarchies of better and worse have gone – this show also hints that there is no difference, really, between a Villeglé or an Alain Jacquet or a Martial Raysse and a Pollock or an Ellsworth Kelly or a Francis Bacon. Actually, and alas, there is.
Centre Pompidou-Metz (00 33 3 87 15 39 39) to 25 Oct
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