How Pop went flat in France

EXHIBITIONS: In Britain it was fun rather than good - but Pop Art weathered the Atlantic far better than the English Channel

Tim Hilton
Saturday 03 May 1997 23:02

"Les Sixties", at the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, has a hybrid French and English title because it's a survey of various types of art on either side of the channel between 1962 and 1972 - the "Utopian Years", as the exhibition's subtitle has it. The nature of the show has been determined not so much by David Mellor, the British curator, as by Laurent Gervereau, who is Director of the Musee d'Histoire Contemporaine in Paris. For his institution is not really an art museum. It deals with documents and ephemera, photographs, advertisements, political posters and the like.

And this is what we get in Brighton. The serious mainstream art of the period is almost completely ignored. There's no sculpture at all, despite the fact that the Sixties saw a sculptural revolution. Painting is not banned, but the organisers don't like work on canvas to be abstract or to have aesthetic concerns. Mellor has, however, introduced three paintings that were not in the show when it was in Paris earlier this year. Peter de Francia's The Emigrants of 1964, about Algerians in France, is a reasonable inclusion, especially since the London-based de Francia has a French background. Another addition is Patrick Proctor's 6am, South Hill Park, a large and ghostly interior. It's interesting for its nonchalance, and the style is very 1965, but what point is it making in this exhibition? And then Mellor has hung Rita Donagh's Evening Papers, Ulster, a painting which was completed in 1974 and is therefore outside the confines of this exhibition by virtue of both its date and subject.

Donagh's grieving observation of Belfast politics has little to do with all the Beatles memorabilia and fashion shots that cram the rooms of this jangling display. Nothing much is explained. One wonders why the years 1962-73 are said to be "utopian". We know that in the Sixties a lot of young people had a good time in a very public way; but this doesn't mean that their life was utopian, still less that they had anything more than the most shallow of political convictions. Shallowness is indeed a theme of this exhibition and the reasons why it gives quite a lot of jerky and un-coordinated pleasure. The moment anything thoughtful turns up - and de Francia's and Donagh's paintings are evidently thoughtful - the atmosphere is wrecked. The visitor wants to return to frivolity and nostalgia.

Maybe we also want to find out more about France in the 1960s. On the basis of the work displayed in Brighton, it must be said that the British were way ahead of the French in verve, cheekiness and style. Admittedly, British Pop Art was diverting rather than good. But how much better it was than the French version! Gerard Fromanger's view of a Parisian department store gains no bite by its use of photography and mixture of styles. Martial Raysse, Peter Klasen and Peter Stamfli are all untalented artists. French Pop becomes more convincing when it's closer to poster design. It may be that the French were better than the British at posters, as the improvised affiches during the student demonstrations of 1968 tend to confirm; in general, though, the French art of the Sixties is worse than disappointing.

Perhaps the French spent too much time in debate. A liking for argument is very seldom helpful to artists. If you want to know what the French were talking about - and don't consider their intellectual conversations as so much butt-yodelling - then I recommend the book that comes with the exhibition (Philip Wilson, pounds 39.95), a collection of essays by French and English authors. Laurence Dorleac's overview of the Parisian art scene is useful, though he seems not to realise how despairing were the pseudo- philosophies of the artists who tried to enrage the establishment, and produced so little. Marie-Francoise Levy writes informatively about French television. I never thought I'd be interested in TV history, but of course it is an important subject, in a gruesome sort of way. The English chapters are less good, and they never address the important question posed by the show: what are the real aesthetic values of "popular culture", and can we be content with such values?

Talk and theory aside, this is really an exhibition of Pop Art, and it's the atmosphere of Pop that affects everything else in the show. Bits of politics often come into the display, not to much effect. I wish that the selection of photography had been stronger. Camerawork is used for documentary purposes, not as an art in its own right. Any discussion of popular culture ought to have something to say about sport, but this subject is ignored. The impression is that Mellor and Gervereau haven't got a grip on any theme, despite the impressive amount of documentation they have amassed. That is because they haven't put art first. The show is messy: there's no strong visual principle on the walls. Between the pages of the book this doesn't matter so much.

Not illustrated, however, are a couple of highly accomplished prints by Allen Jones, which I believe have never been exhibited before. A collaboration between Derek Boshier and Christopher Logue, Sex War Sex Cars Sex, was also new to me. Pauline Boty's inept paintings of models in pornographic poses have their interest. Everyone likes Peter Blake's pictures of the Beatles. Stephen Ward's portrait drawing of Christine Keeler is a little masterpiece of vulgarity, serving to remind us that real masterpieces of art are a necessity in any period. You won't find any in "Les Sixties", for Mellor and Gervereau keep well away from such things. Genuine culture might spoil their fun.

Brighton Museum & Art Gallery (01273 709709), to 29 June.

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