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“Abstract art is a power grab. The artist usurps the throne of interpretation traditionally held by the viewer.”

Exploring conceptual art through context. We pay homage to Jean Fautrier on exhibition at Museé d’Art Moderne de La Ville de Paris.


Knowing good art from bad comes down to taste, but contrary to popular belief, taste is a muscle. As the Abstract Expressionist Syd Solomon once told Kurt Vonnegut, if you want to tell a good painting from a bad one, you have to “look at a million paintings first.”

A good place to start is the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, which until the 20 th of May, is exhibiting a major retrospective of the work of Jean Fautrier. Fautrier was a 20 th Century French painter most famous for his works of Tachisme, the European version of American Abstract Expressionism.

Abstract expressionism is perhaps a turn off for some, although, considering the popularity of modern art, not as many as I would hope. However, for those who ‘don’t get it’, and those who can’t tell the difference between an abstract masterpiece and the faecal finger-work of a lunatic, Fautrier could be the guy to clear things up. He may have been a loner, but he was no lunatic. Importantly, The Musée d’Art Moderne boasts the world’s biggest collection of the artists’ work, meaning there’s a lot of it, and it’s not all abstract. What can be seen in the span of Fautrier’s work, from the figurative still lifes, to the landscapes and nudes, is his formal prowess. For an abstract painter, this is more important than you might think.

The Shogun Iyanari once held an art competition between Hokusai and a now forgotten brush-stroke painter. One presumes, since the shogun was to adjudicate the face-off himself, that the forgotten painter toiled through sleepless nights vacillating over each stroke like Hamlet on a putting green. Hokusai entered the court, rolled out a large piece of paper, and painted a bold blue curve across it. He then proceeded to dip a chicken’s feet in red paint and chase it across the canvas. When asked to explain what he’d done, Hokusai said he had painted a landscape of the Tatsuta River complete with floating autumn maple leaves. Hokusai won.

The message in this famous story is that great artists can capture a concept with a simplicity bordering on the absurd, but they can only get away with it if they’re steeped in the complexities of the art form already. If Hokusai was chasing chickens around every day he’d be less like a great artist and more like Rocky Balboa. The simplicity is born out of his complex mastery of all other forms. Such is the case with Picasso and Pollock, and to a certain extent Fautrier as well.

Abstract art is a power grab. The artist usurps the throne of interpretation traditionally held by the viewer. It’s genius though, at least from the position of the artist, is that this power position is almost entirely without risk. The Sword of Damocles no longer hangs anxiously overhead.

Without form, the artist can snip the threatening sword’s string and leave it bent over in the background, that is, if the artist even wants a background. For the viewer however, things become slightly more difficult, because without form, abstract art is like the witness protection program for incompetence. A lack of ability suddenly becomes a lot harder to detect.

Obscurantism allowed Ezra Pound to parade himself around as a poet of abstract free verse; that his poetry was as unreadable as a barf bag during turbulence meant that initially, few people thought to stop him. T. S. Eliot’s free verse on the other hand, launched him into the artistic stratosphere, but that was only because he never ceased from proving just how masterly he was in the tighter forms. Indeed, the reason Eliot’s free verse was so good, was not because it lacked form, but because a sense of technical form was written all over it.

Similarly, Picasso could play around in the abstract because by the time he was sixteen he had already mastered everything else. My old apartment in New York was in walking distance of the Guggenheim Museum. If you like the idea of traipsing around the world’s cosmopolitan capitals for crowded glimpses of the Impressionists, a leisurely stroll up the ramp of the Guggenheim to look in on Picasso’s Moulin de la Galette will save you a good deal of time and money. As Clive James once astutely noted, in that single nightclub scene, Picasso proves he mastered the whole heritage of the Impressionist painters in a month. James was right of course; the Moulin de la Galette is Renoir after dark with a nice buzz going.

Like Alberto Giacometti and Jean Dubuffet, and almost every other artist with a pulse and an untarnished name in post-war  Paris, Fautrier’s art became heavily associated with Existentialist philosophy. Names were tarnished by collusion with Nazi occupation, or polished through participation in the French Resistance. That is unless your name is Sartre, in that case you just tell everyone you fought in the Resistance and confuse everyone so much they forget you didn’t. Fautrier was arrested for his participation and later took refuge in a psychiatric hospital in the suburbs of Paris where he worked on what is probably his most important series – Les Otages (The Hostages).

As Existentialism wrestled with the trauma of the 20th Century, so did the painters. Les Otages studies just what can be done to a body, and in doing so, arouses anxiety, wounding, and atrocities like the firing squad. The writer Francis Ponge compared the series with Picasso’s Guernica in Notes sur Les Otages (1945): “The scream of martyred Spain was expressed artistically in Picasso’s oil painting Guernica. Eight years on we have Les Otages: horror and beauty mixed in equal parts.

After the terrors of mass ideology had ripped the world apart, and left it torn in two, philosophers like Albert Camus uncovered human existence from the ruins in the rebellion of the individual. Faced with the absurd, the individual rebels
with an extraordinary vivacity and quantity of life, beauty and consciousness. It is in the individual, not the ideology, and certainly not the prophecy, that the common dignity of man is found. Painters like Fautrier helped to shape and colour these profound ideas, adding to their immanent complexity, and through their mastery of form, rebuilding the body of our civilization with simple conceptual stones. 

| Words | Blake Matich

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