Museums, as objects, are here to tell us about an elsewhere that we don’t know, in order to educate us and provide us with rational, learned, Cartesian discourses —especially ethnographic, archeological and natural history museums. Of course, this is set in a model that structures our society and outlook. The same artifacts won’t relay the same discourse whether they are displayed in a “cabinet of curiosities,” a colonial museum, an antiques shop, a flea market or the Quai Branly museum. Our ideology in showing and exhibiting imposes itself on the artifact and our gaze has to conform to it. Sure, we can choose to be docile, because we are respectful, conformist, and learning; or we can choose to be skeptical and reluctant when faced with, for example, the national narrative of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, the racialist phrenology of colonial exhibitions, or falsified colonizing archeology in Moshe Dayan’s style. However, we always remain within this rational logic, consuming meaning and context.
Lisbon’s Museo do Chiado has put forward an interesting initiative: under the title “Avant-garde and neo-avant-garde” (June 17, 2016 – June 17, 2017), it has elected to display the 20th– and 21st-century artworks of its collection, despite being almost exclusively known for its 19th-century pieces. However, at the risk of provoking my Portuguese friends’ outcries, I will say I was deeply bored visiting the rooms leading up to 1965. Not that I am not interested in movements like Futurism, Cubism, Surrealism or abstract art —far from it. But at the Chiado I saw mere adaptations, variations, imitations. I looked in vain for some unsettling, stimulating instances of creativity, only encountering earnest, well-rounded artworks that might have encapsulated what each of these movements were about, but that never really stood out on their own. (In the adjacent rooms, there is a dithyrambic exhibition on Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso, “greatest artist of the century,” a hidden gem finally revealed —like at the Grand Palais, I couldn’t appreciate it without taking into account the historical and cultural context.) Is this informed by Parisianocentric disdain for provincial follow-the-leader endeavors? Maybe, but then again I don’t have the same feeling of déjà-vu in front of Italian artists of this era, for instance.
First, astonishment seizes you: what? a Bernard Buffet exhibition (at the MAMVP, October 14, 2016 – March 5, 2017)? Then, doubt unfurls: maybe I’ve let something slip by me? Am I missing out on some revelation because of my prejudices?
After having seen the exhibition, it’s nothing but consternation: how could they dare to make such an unconvincing show? Or is it that rehabilitating Buffet amounted to an impossible task? And if so, why put together this exhibition? To please Pierre Bergé, the ex-boyfriend, who owns a fair amount of the paintings on display (his portrait pictured last)? I cannot think so. This is not a rediscovery or rehabilitation, this is a “rebranding” —on the walls of the exhibition, a quote from Bergé: “[Buffet’s] prickly signature has become a brand name.” Is this actually the context in which we should apprehend this promotional relaunch?
I must admit from the get-go that I have never been a die-hard fan of Cy Twombly’s work; I do like his photographs and their faded hues, but his paintings often left me skeptical, or even worried. His retrospective at the Centre Pompidou (November 30, 2016 – April 24, 2017) had the merit to help me understand why. To me, Twombly oscillates between two poles: one is austere, abstraction-oriented, pared down, reduced to its simplest expression; the other is expressive, exuberant, almost baroque, and weighed down with references that can be seen as pretentious.