When driving up there, one crosses awful little villages that have been destroyed by human greed and utter need to spend conges payes on the French Riviera. Upon arrival, the landscape changes and becomes more green - but everything looks and feels uber-organised. 15 euros to get in, 5 euros to take photos. The whole space is taken over by philo-superstar BHL’s Les aventures de la verite exhibition. But when entering the garden, the same Chillida, Hepworth, Calder, Leger and other artists that have greatly contributed to build the Maeght family reputation
But let's start with this summer most talked about exhibition. It is supposed to show the links between Art and Philosophy - and has attracted a number of half-celebs, some of them having had the privilege of Monsieur Levy in person
First room, the entrance. The curse of the shadows. The common theme seems to be Plato and his cave. Otherwise, what is there in common between Morandi, transformist British artist Grayson Perry and Beuys's Fettfleck (fat stain) for instance? In the second half of the first room, a few interesting and surprising pieces. An etching showing the birth of painting by Joseph-Benoit Sauvée looks stunning: a girl draws her fiance's shadow on a wall before he leaves. Perhaps the most relevant piece in this first room. At this point, the links between shadows, the cave, Plato and the artists appear magically clear. And I am surprised not to see a Soulages here. Too easy perhaps? Huang Yong Ping's Plato cavern is stunning: through a very small hole, one can see inside a humongous resin grotto, with bats shadows, and buddhas and talibans... Makes one think
Moving to room 2, excitement grows. The artist has fallen in Plato's cave. How to make him (her?) worthy again? BHL summons the Bible and Veronica, who gave Jesus her veil on Via Dolorosa. If Jesus himself has printed his face on Veronica's veil, it means that printing images can be holy after all. Again in room 2, this is not a contemporary piece that draws my attention, but a piece by Mignard, Saint Luke painting the Virgin. Again, BHL chooses a theme (revolving around Veronique), and goes around it: after multiple representations of Veronique, and her veil, the veil alone with pieces by Tapies and the more confidential Wolfgang Gaefgan. At times though, it goes a bit too far: not every woman with a light piece of clothing can be called a Veronique, and I can't help wondering why Fortuny's Nudo femminile di spalle has found its way in this otherwise stunning show. Moving down, there is a Garouste. One of my favourite painters. But suddenly afterwards, for the Bonnard nude, the leaflet shows BHL's cheekiness: perhaps the curator has left his imagination run, it says. Yes, he has, and we are relieved - but not surprised - that he realises and acknowledges it. Room 2 ends majestuously, with mimeographed images of Jackie O, still Jackie K, on a printed veil, by Warhol
At this point, what strikes me beyond the mere thinking process behind assembling these pieces, is the multiplicity of their origins - as if the curator had taken a universal catalogue of all the world's works of art of all times
The pre-room 3 is less clear. It is the third act of the first two: 1) the artists were in the dark, 2) the artists come to light, and 3) the artists retaliate and send the philosophers to the shadows. Baldessari OK, Sophie Calle why not - although the philosophical link is a bit tenuous - but Picabia and Abramovic, not really here. Let's move on. The rest of room 3, although displaying beautiful pieces - Ensor, Garouste again, Leger, Pei-Ming, Basquiat, to name a few - has no immediate link with the story BHL wants to tell us. N'importe, let's continue, and let's perhaps forget about wanting to rationalise a story
Room 4 is no clearer in terms of fil conducteur of the story - but again one is amazed by the universality of the artists shown here. Kiefer, Soulages - not the most relevant to make BHL's points - Meese, Ellsworth Kelly, dear to the Maeght's heart, even Opalka are summonned to tell the philosophical story. The story though becomes pointillist, we seem no longer invited to the grand show of the philosophical history, but to a concatenation of small stories, the sum of which represents our curator's message. And when the ingredients are as prestigious and stunning as those here, we have to abide
In room 5, art wins by KO over philosophy. Is BHL really a philosopher? But hold on, there are still two rooms to go? Room 5 is a good cliffhanger: what is coming next, I catch myself worrying, climbing the steps to room 6?
Expectedly, in room 6, philosophy wins back. And the story becomes clearer. Man Ray is called to help, so are Duchamp and his many portraitists, Klein and his blue sculptural portraits, a brilliant Sol LeWitt and an ueber-witty Burgin (Lei Feng, 1974). There is also talk of Isidore Isou and Guy Debord, with their inspirator Gabriel Pomerand. On pressent une fin heureuse. What if room 7 was to put philo and art on an equal footing?
Here comes room 7 - and final. Lots of colours. And the expected truce. Art and philosophy are good friends after all, and BHL, in this magnificent exhibition has shown that he can master both, very impressively. Let's look around us: Matisse, Arroyo, Vezzoli, Boucher, Bacon, Giacometti, Barcelo, Basquiat again, Tintoretto, BHL has invited a who's who of ancient, modern and contemporary creation to the reconciliation of art and speech. And he has even set the scene, by Immendorff. What could the scene be, if not Le Flore (pictured)? Mister Levy, you are cheeky – of course not the best piece of this extraordinary exhibition, but such a wink that I had to show it
What I have attended in the last three hours (yes, three hours) is really a parcours initiatique. It is a didactic way to teach philosophy from art, by underlining one philosophical interpretation that artists may or may not have wanted to give their works. It is artistico-philosophical exegesis, where BHL takes us by the hand and leads the way. Well done, you have given me the urge to read Plato, Nietzsche and Heidegger again
Les aventures de la verite, curated by Bernard-Henri Levy
Saint-Paul de Vence, South of France
Until 11 November 2013