Magazine article The Spectator

Frantic Tour

Magazine article The Spectator

Frantic Tour

Article excerpt

Paris: Capital of the Arts 1900-1968 (Royal Academy, till 19 April)

Are cities exhibitable? The evidence seems to be piling up that they are not. The year before last, Century City at the Tate focused on numerous towns around the world, without really saying much of interest about any of them. Now Paris: Capital of the Arts 1900-1968 at the Royal Academy takes just one of those and considers it in massive detail. And, though not quite the disaster that Century City was, the result is not a terribly coherent, easily digestible or convincing exhibition either.

In a way, this exhibition is the successor to the generally excellent series that the RA put on in the Eighties and early Nineties, dedicated to the art of four countries - Britain, Italy, Germany and America - in the 20th century. At the time, France was not included, it was widely presumed, partly because the subject was overwhelmingly complicated in the first half of the period, and partly because it declined embarrassingly in the second.

Those two difficulties still apply, even if you restrict the range just to Paris, the centre of the French and for - over a long time - the international art worlds. Moreover, the whole enterprise becomes all the more problematic precisely because Paris was such an international base. Do you include artists such as Salvador Dali, Alexander Calder and Ellsworth Kelly who all worked for a period in Paris? Or do they really belong to the stories of Spanish or American art?

The exhibition's solution is to bung them all in - as well as transients such as the Englishman Walter Sickert - but as a result it resembles a dish with too many diverse ingredients, superficially attractive, but not really satisfying. One is frequently unsure as to whether a certain exhibit truly belongs. Ellsworth Kelly, for example, whose work is quintessentially American in its Shaker simplicity, told me a few years ago that, in Paris, 'I saw the scene, and I realised that I am not European, I am not French... I had to think of something new.'

So the show is trying to deal with two subjects simultaneously: French art in the 20th century, and the international artistic community known as the School of Paris, which in the first part of the last century included at least half the major artists in Europe -- and beyond - at one time or another.

The result is a slightly frantic tour through a great deal of art history. Dadaism, for example, occupies a strange structure slightly resembling those much loved cylindrical Parisian newsstands, set up in the middle of the grandest room at the Academy. Some of this works well enough. The room entitled `Cubism and the Modern World' - meaning Cubists and the Cubistish - looks handsome, gathered around Robert Delaunay's wonderfully fractured `Tour Eiffel' of 1911. The Surrealist room looks fine, too. And scattered here and there are many marvellous loans. It is worth the price of admission just to see Soutine's great `Carcass of Beef from the Albright-- Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo.

One of the aims of this kind of grand-- survey exhibition is to put the famous and familiar next to the obscure - and see what happens. Sometimes an exhibition can resurrect the unfashionable or unknown. But here the impression is more often of the great being jostled by the justly forgotten. …

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