Will France’s obsession with “l’exception culturelle” derail the forthcoming negotiations about a free-trade agreement between the U.S. and the European Union?
Although the two exhibitions at the Pompidou Center in Paris don’t directly address that question, they give a pretty good idea of how much the U.S. and the French approaches to art can differ.
It’s like Hollywood versus cinema d’auteur.
The two shows feature artists Roy Lichtenstein and Simon Hantai. The Lichtenstein exhibition is the last leg of a world tour that started in May 2012 at Chicago’s Art Institute and also included stops in Washington and London.
Those who have seen the show in Chicago will be surprised to learn that, in crossing the Atlantic, it has shrunk by almost a third, from 170 works to 120.
Have the French curators gotten cold feet at the prospect of trotting out the old warhorse again?
Lichtenstein’s (1923-97) fame rests on his blown-up comic-strip images complete with the Ben-Day dots typical of cheap printing paper. The witty and technically brilliant satires on romance comics are by far his best work.
Later, he directed his considerable talent for parody toward Monet, Picasso, Matisse and others whose canvases he adapted to his own Pop style.
The Abstract Expressionists, to which he belonged before switching to Pop art in the early 1960s, also got their comeuppance: With grotesquely blown-up brush strokes, he mimicked their mannerisms and calculated spontaneity.
It’s all very clever and funny, yet the surprise quickly wears off. A feeling of deja vu sets in.
When Lichtenstein forgets about pastiche and tries to be original, as he does in his mirror paintings of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the result is bland.
Simon Hantai (1922-2008), though Lichtenstein’s contemporary, lived in a very different world.
The Hungarian-born painter, who moved to Paris in 1948, also fell briefly under the spell of Abstract Expressionism. Before that, his strange monsters and freakish women were feted as masterpieces of Surrealism.
At the end of the 1950s, Hantai entered the most esoteric period of his life.
The key work of those years, “Peinture: Ecriture Rose” (Painting: Pink Writing), consists of several layers that were then scratched off and covered with gold leaf. The first layer, biblical, philosophical and poetic texts, disappeared beneath religious symbols.
One of those symbols is Martin Luther’s legendary ink blot: When the Devil tried to disturb his translation of the Bible, Luther hurled an ink pot at him.
It was only in the 1960s that Hantai developed the abstract style for which he is best known. Before painting a canvas, he folded, crumpled or knotted it, working only on the part accessible to his brush.
Unfolded, the canvas displayed irregular though harmonious patterns -- not unlike those seen through a kaleidoscope.
In 1982, after representing France at the Venice Biennale, Hantai decided to withdraw from the world of art. The show at the Centre Pompidou, which includes some 130 paintings from all stages of his career, is the first retrospective of his work in nearly 40 years.
They are an odd couple, the cheerful, self-assured, New Yorker and the Paris recluse. Yet both are definitely worth a visit.
The Hantai exhibition runs through Sept. 2, the Lichtenstein show through Nov. 4. Information: http://www.centrepompidou.fr.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Warwick Thompson on U.K. theater, Hephzibah Anderson on books, Greg Evans on U.S. TV and John Mariani on wine.