What a difference the channel makes. In the UK, climate are gluing themselves to iconic paintings, including Constable’s “Hay Wain” in the National Gallery, in protest against oil and gas extraction even when the museums themselves have no link to fossil-fuel sponsors. Yet in France, a collection belonging to an oil tycoon has gone on show without a whisper of protest.
Nestled in the idyllic village of Saint-Paul de Vence, the Fondation Maeght this summer welcomes the glorious abstract art collection of Jean Claude Gandur, a Swiss businessman and philanthropist who made much of his fortune from trading in oil from sub-Saharan Africa. Had there been a to-do, it’s likely the Maeght, started in 1964 by Aimé and Marguerite Maeght, who had built up a prestigious business as art dealers and publishers in Paris, would have weathered the storm.
Designed by Catalan architect Josep Lluís Sert in brick, whitewashed cement and glass, for decades the foundation was a shady, sunlit cocoon of culture in synergy with the rocky, pine-cloaked Provençal landscape. But it has had its share of turbulence. In 2011, Yoyo Maeght, granddaughter of Aimé, left the organisation’s board amid a bitter family rift. With three different directors in less than 10 years and complaints of mismanagement from the French ministry of culture, the future looked uncertain.
In 2018, Nicolas Gitton joined as director and seems to have got the foundation back on track. Long-layed plans to build an architectural extension have been kick-started with €1.5mn from central and local public funds, and an exhibition of the Giacometti family last year proved a soaring success, attracting more than 100,000 visitors, a huge pandemic-era achievement.
Rivalling the Côte d’Azur light for radiance, Gandur’s show should also magnetise crowds. Selected by Yan Schubert, the Gandur Collection’s permanent curator, the exhibition comprises more than 100 works by about 50 artists. Most are European though there are also a handful of North Americans such as Sam Francis and Jean-Paul Riopelle. All bar three — Joan Mitchell, Aurélie Nemours and Judit Reigl — are men. (At least Schubert acknowledges the gender imbalance in his catalog essay, which makes a welcome change from the tradition of ignoring such problems.)
Life in postwar Europe was bittersweet. Although liberated from Nazi terror, the continent’s psychic landscape was incised with suffering. Many artists never attempted to speak to such catastrophic loss. “Guernica” had stamped Picasso as war’s most excoriating visual poet, but he retreated to grumpy Mediterranean mythmaking. Matisse, who died in 1954, had already untethered himself from material miseries through his ethereal paper cut-outs.
But the artists of the Gandur stable refused to surrender their faith in art’s essential gravity. What they did abandon was representation. In a world that had behaved so inhumanely, no recognisable figure, no animal, flower or seascape could possibly capture the collective aftermath. Abstraction voiced the inexpressible. Irrational, intuitive, open to a myriad of interpretations, it was a route out of the cage of tyranny.
The tension between repression and liberty cracks throughout the show. Anchoring the first galleries are paintings by Georges Mathieu. Considered the father of the dreamy, gestural genre known as lyrical abstraction, he daubs and scribbles thick blacks, reds and whites against pale, stained, pockmarked prairies — “Açone” (1948), an untitled 1951 work, “Obscuration” (1952) — to evoke exploded stars in a broken cosmos. Meanwhile, Riopelle’s compressed, fiery-hued thatches — “Composition” (1950), “Hommage à Robert le Diabolique” (1953) — speak of emotions crushed so fiercely that they can only erupt into chaos.
Born in Canada, Riopelle is one of a cache of North American painters who were crucial to the new amorphous blossoming. Just as many French artists traveled to the US to absorb the evolution of Abstract Expressionism, so the Americans came to France to learn from Mathieu and his tribe. With its sprays and spillages of teal, indigo and daffodil pigment on a pale ground, the enormous “Tokyo” (1957) by Californian Sam Francis — who spent much of the 1950s in Paris — feels like a deconstructed summer morning on the Côte d’ Azur, although in truth it was inspired by his spell in Japan.
Such sensitivity chimes with the dolce vita fantasies of artists such as Henri Matisse and Joan Miró. Indeed, in 1979 the latter designed stained-glass windows inhabited by glowing bird-women for the Fondation Maeght. In a bold curatorial move, Schubert has chosen the same gallery for a display of geometric abstractionists. Some of this cohort could be as austere as their lyrical counterparts were extravagant. But Schubert has chosen stark graphics from Victor Vasarely — “R-Cassiopée” (1958-60), “Maragnon-R” (1957-61) and “OB-Bleu” (1956-63) — which employs cobalt as a cavalier counterweight to their puritan monochromes, while nearby the airy flutter of kinetic sculptures by Alexander Calder and Jean Tinguely remind one that many geometric tendencies were rooted in the cosmic explorations of Kazimir Malevich.
Abstraction’s most enthusiastic astronaut was the Argentine Lucio Fontana, who aimed to capture the infinity of outer space by ripping through his canvases. Made in 1956, relatively early on in Fontana’s galactic odyssey, Gandur’s “Concetto spaziale” is an unexpected find. Smaller and grittier than the smooth, slashed canvases which have made its author the darling of interior decorators worldwide, its surface, encrusted with splinters of glass and jabbed with rugged holes, could be the fragment of some shattered planet, distant.
Fontana’s painting is just one of several works which illustrate famous artists’ less-ordinary practices. Others include a small, untitled 1959 panel by Bulgarian artist Christo. Renowned for wrapping grand public monuments, here the young man, still in his twenties, sticks clods of earth and clay on to an arid map of scratches and drips to create a panel that is at once painting and sculpture, matter and image.
The work is delicately countered by “Savonarole” (1954), a rugged little sculpture of cinders, cement and mortar by Jean Dubuffet. Part of a section entitled “Materialities”, which includes Italian such as Alberto Burri, Piero Manzoni and Salvatore Scarpitta, who rejected oil paint, bronze and marble in favor of less elevated materials such as charred sacking, kaolin and textile, these works speak of Europe’s postwar wasteland: a desolate, scorched earth from which art might, or might not, help one find the way back.
Given these artists’ commitment to abstraction, it is interesting that none captured our existential crisis more supremely than Alberto Giacometti. One of the privileges of seeing Gandur’s collection at the Fondation Maeght is that the latter is already home to a clutch of awe-inspiring sculptures by the Swiss artist. Installed in the central courtyard, this group of figures — “Walking Man” I and II, “Standing Woman” I and II, “Large Head” (all 1959-60) — are an astonishing testament to an artist who excavated his art out of his conviction that we exist in a state of alienation both from each other and from ourselves. Trapped on terracotta tiles under a merciless southern sun, his emaciated, indefatigable figures exude vulnerability and resistance in equal measure, they will to survive tussling it out with the urge to despair.
Today, the earnest, passionate chiaroscuro vision of Giacometti and his non-figurative brethren are as relevant as they have ever been. Had they been working today, there’s a little doubt that the horror of global warming, and concerns about fossil fuels and putting the planet at risk, would have seared their practice just as the second world war once did.
To November 20, fondation-maeght.com