EXHIBITIONS / Life, but not as we know it: The Tate is trying to pin a philosophy on post-Liberation Paris. But where's the evidence? Plus the shock of the old at the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
FRANCES MORRIS of the Tate Gallery is one of the best of our young curators, but something has gone wrong with her exhibition, Paris Post War: Art and Existentialism 1945-55. The pictures she has borrowed are not up to the mark. There are many better and more telling Picassos than those now at Millbank, better paintings by Dubuffet in both private and public collections; and if these are the best works that can be found by Jean Helion, Henri Michaux, Francis Gruber and Bram van Velde, then one wonders what they are doing in a supposedly major show.

They are exhibited because the subject is important. How was art to begin again after the years of the German occupation, and the hideous revelations that came with peace? There cannot have been any painter or sculptor who did not feel that it was time for a new and different effort. The quality of art after the Liberation wasn't high, but it did draw attention to itself as a worried, if not agonised personal expression.

The trouble with the Tate exhibition is that it is unproven that any more than a handful of artists had anything to do with Existentialism. I think there should have been a broader examination of the art of the period. If Picasso is here, why not Braque, Matisse or Leger?

It would also have been good to look at many other artists. Morris brushes aside Andre Marchand, though taking the trouble to mention him as a person 'now barely remembered'. OK, but we would like to see why he was hailed as the next great painter after the Cubists. Other artists active in post-war Paris but not in this show include Arp, Jean-Michel Atlan, Camille Bryen, Bernard Buffet, Lucien Coutaud, Olivier Debre, Max Ernst, the inseparable Roger Edgar Gillet and Maurice Renet, Hans Hartung, Francoise Gilot, Asger Jorn and other members of the Cobra group, Andre Masson, Georges Mathieu, Poliakoff, Mario Prassinos, Riopelle, Schneider, Soulages, de Stael, Vieira da Silva and Isabelle Waldberg.

I mention all these names simply to emphasise that post-war Parisian art was immensely varied and that the Tate exhibition gives us a highly selective view of the scene. Furthermore, this view is in itself incoherent. For there is no real evidence that Existentialism - if we are to regard it as a philosophy rather than a social pose - had influence on art. And the philosophers simply were not visual people. Sartre would be as illuminating on cricket as he is on art. (I include Samuel Beckett among the unvisual: his writings about Masson, Tal Coat and van Velde are really about himself.) So Morris can say of her exhibition: 'Paris Post War is a group show of isolated parts. That each artist worked in relative isolation and produced a highly distinctive oeuvre was an 'Existential' condition of authenticity . . . only rarely did one exhibit work alongside another. They never exhibited as a group . . .'

Well, you could say that what she means by this is that the artists she has chosen are representative of Existentialism by virtue of being representative only of themselves. And as I write these words I am spirited back to a million inconclusive conversations about the nature of art and Existentialism in which your correspondent (born 1941) once participated, youthful debates in those centres of the Birmingham intelligentsia, the Woodman pub near the art school and the El Sombrero coffee bar in the Bull Ring, the Saint Germain-des-Pres of our provincial world. We hadn't a clue what we were about; we just knew that it would be a good thing to be an artist.

The Tate catalogue quotes Sartre to the effect that Existentialism gave philosophy a popular voice. I don't think philosophy ever does this, unless it's bad philosophy. The Existentialist mood gave, rather, a vehement but undefinable role to popular, ie, untutored art. Anyone could be an artist, even a bourgeois (was not Dubuffet a bourgeois, at least in origin?), and might be the better artist for being illiterate, drunk, insane, unskilled, violent and so on. Thus art was open both to Picasso and to any energetic kid from the Pershore Road who had been expelled from school. There wasn't much sense to this attitude - but what fun it gave to adolescence]

I write about Birmingham because a British response to the Parisian mood is part of the Tate exhibition. As a show, it's not impressive. The interest lies in the theories we have from Morris and from Sarah Wilson, whose long essay is part of a forthcoming book. David Mellor, curator of the Barbican Sixties exhibition, also writes in the catalogue, about the influence of Paris on British art life. I do not recollect having seen Mellor in the Woodman, but gladly admit that everything he says is of interest, right or wrong.

So also with Wilson, who is wonderfully abundant with information but needs to do a lot of work on her taste. All three writers - I call them writers because the catalogue is better than the exhibition - belong to a contemporary trend in art discussion. Since they look in all directions to make up their theories they don't like to say which works of art are more valuable than others. Hence many weaknesses of the show on the Tate walls, which in truth is a room or half a room for each artist. Morris could not have made Artaud, Wols or Fautrier look better; but they are minor artists dressed up as significant figures. Van Velde is overemphasised, Dubuffet underemphasised. Giacometti's portraits look good, but how is it that this exhibition turns Picasso into a timid painter? Even in uninstructed Birmingham we knew that this could not be so.

'Paris Post War: Art and Existentialism 1945-55', sponsored by the 'Independent' and supported by the French Embassy in London, is at the Tate Gallery, SW1 (071-821 1313), to 5 Sept.

NEVER A year goes by without death stalking the Royal Academy, and as usual the Summer Exhibition contains a number of tributes to the departed. At Burlington House are the last sculptures by Elisabeth Frink and F E McWilliam, architectural drawings by James Stirling and paintings by John Bratby, Richard Eurich, Peter Greenham, Sidney Nolan and Robin Philipson, all of whom have left us since last summer.

De mortuis nil nisi bonum, so let us say that their loss gives a special patina to their work. And I feel that the latest crop of deaths puts the Academy in a sad position. Take the question of portraiture, a traditional strength. The Academicians who specialised in bishops and judges finally disappeared some years ago. And then, in their different ways - one bumptious, the other gloomily sensitive - Bratby and Greenham gave us, year after year, dependable pictures of other people. Who, among younger artists, will take their place? Nobody, from the look of this show. The Academy pretends that it pays no attention to trends in art. The trends are none the less apparent, and in 1993 we are seeing the disappearance of Academic specialities.

Take landscape. I find no replacement for such an artist as Eurich, though in all his years as a teacher he must have raised a few countryside painters. The most satisfying landscapes this year are from older, not to say aged, artists: Peter Coker, Adrian Berg and the Academy's president, Roger de Grey. No younger generation is coming up with a special interest in the genre. It is conceivable that landscape painting will fizzle out altogether, just like the landscape itself.

But the main reason why old or dead artists now seem so attractive is not aesthetic but political: the Academy is frightened of its future. Roger de Grey is due to retire this year and no decent successor is in sight. Academicians are appalled by the prospect that they might be governed by any of the current intake of new RAs. No one older wants the job, which is onerous and unpaid. So the plan now is to amend the rules so de Grey can stay on beyond retirement age.

I think that once they start changing the rules they won't be able to stop and that in the new century we will see a president (of the Republican Academy of Arts?) who is paid for his or her services and is chosen from an open submission. The Academy survives only through the enormous appeal of its public exhibitions. Its president ought not to emerge from the present self-electing oligarchy. Meanwhile Tom Phillips, the most eager of the young (fiftyish) candidates for the presidency, writes in the catalogue that there is a 'defiant outrageousness' about the Summer Exhibition, that it gives the 'broader picture' not found elsewhere and that only at the RA can the public be reminded that 'great traditions are alive and flourishing'.

This is not true. British art of all sorts is better than the interpretation given to it by the RA summer show - which is not defiant or outrageous, but timid and self-satisfied. The only true outrage is in the wretched account of new sculpture. Imagine it alone, without all the surrounding two-dimensional works. In such a naked state, the exhibition would make one weep.

There are, of course, some acceptable sculptures. John Maine and William Pye make their usual middle-of-the-road contributions. Nicola Hicks has gone completely Academic but disguises her new affinities by sculpting her Pandora from straw and mud. Phillip King shows one of his alchemical underwater pieces, and there's a Barry Flanagan monster, bizarre even by his standards. Eduardo Paolozzi shows a nice little bronze. Other small pieces that could easily be overlooked are by Clive Barker, Jane Ackroyd and Allen Jones.

Jones's sculpture is improving as he becomes defter. His new painting looks good, clever too. In the Royal Academy environment sheer cleverness appears a special virtue. For reasons not hard to imagine it is often difficult to tell who the intelligent Academicians might be. Among this year's exhibitors, I would say that the following are intelligent artists: Henry Mundy, Derrick Greaves, Fred Gore, Mary Fedden, Patrick Caulfield, Tim Hyman and Bernard Cohen. I'm not saying that intelligence alone can make a work of art, simply that such painters are alert, and don't paint on automatic pilot. Artists who wish to impress us by references to their reading are common in the Academy. Tom Phillips and R B Kitaj are among them every year. Kitaj's Whistler Vs Ruskin is weak in many ways, although he has a head start by lifting his composition from George Bellows. Phillips's portrait of Salman Rushdie, evidently copied from a photograph, draws parallels with Dreyfus and Zola.

More authentic paintings come from Sandra Blow, Len McComb, Noel Forster, William Bowyer, Olwyn Blowey and Colin Hayes. John Hoyland's new pictures are disturbing, David Hockney's Californiascapes vulgar. Bill Jacklin's Coney Island prints are of interest but I prefer that master technician Norman Ackroyd. Invited artists from abroad include Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein and Anselm Kiefer. The best painting is by a dead American, Richard Diebenkorn, and this underlines the message of the exhibition. At the moment the Academy is saved by old blood: but it won't last.

Royal Academy, W1 (071-439 7438), to 15 Aug.

(Photographs omitted)