Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Full Transcript: Jean Clair Interview on "The New Man"

Sorry to be a bit delayed on this, but I'm now posting the full transcript of my conversation with Jean Clair, former director of the Picasso Museum and the Centre Georges Pompidou, and current curatorial lead for the exhibition "The 1930s: The Making of the New Man", which opens this Friday at the National Gallery of Canada. In this fuller interview, Clair discusses in greater depth his perspectives on themes in 1930s artmaking—from propaganda to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. (He also points out why you shouldn't beleive everything you read in a gallery media kit.) Read on after the jump for the full conversation.

Photo from Le Figaro

This interview with French curator Jean Clair took place by phone on Monday, June 2, 2008 on the occasion of “The 1930s: The Making of the New Man,” an exhibit for which Clair led curation, opening at the National Gallery of Canada.

Leah Sandals: Thanks for taking time to speak with me. I know you must be busy. My first question is relates to the fact that there are many works in this show which take very different approaches to the human body. How are they connected? Why are they all here together?

Jean Clair: Well, they are connected together in relationship with the main ideologies which emerged in the 30s and which were supposed to give man a new form under the name of “The new man.” All these ideologies were dreaming of creating a new man free from machination, free from poverty, and so on and so on and so on. And of course these ideologies were very inflential on the ways these artist represented this new body. This is the main stream of the exhibition.

To say more precisely: On one side you have artists like the surrealists, who were dreaming of a man totally free to enjoy pleasures of flesh and love, and who were dreaming of a body, according to Breton, which had a “convulsive beauty,” which means a body in a state of, so to speak, permanent orgasm.

On the other side you had the political man, who were rather thinking of the new man as a kind of very strong very severe looking and very disciplinized type of humanity practicing sport or practicing sort of a very rather severe life up to the point of creating a new body by social regeneration. This was a type of the essentially the Soviet ideologies, to make a new man out of education, social education and chastisement and purification or whatever you want.

And on the other side, much more dangerous and criminal, was the Nazi ideologies thinking of creating a racially pure man. And it gave way to a series of points of view, of iconography on one side of the sports man, the strong man, the pure race and [on the other side] a position to representations of man which were considered to be degenerate. The term of degenerate art flourished in this decade.

So it’s important to see both sides. Of course the side of the pure man is very attractive because you are dealing with beautiful specimens, but it led to the war and the concentration camps. And on the other side you have the struggle of individuals.

LS: The 1930s were also a time of great economic upheaval. How do we see this in the works… or not?

JC: In a way it is reflected but the point of view, the general point of view, is not really economic, it is biologic. The idea of creating a new man and how these very very ideals led to the worst things ever in Europe, the mass murders of the Second World War. And of course the economic is evoked in for instance [the works of of the so-called war Farm Services Administration journalists in the 1930s, in the term of the dust bowl representing the way the earth is no longer a mother.

LS: On that note, this exhibition argues that biology was key to many of these artists. How?

JC: Because if you want to create a new man you have to apply the laws of biology as they were discovered at the time. You wanted men to grow like corn in the fields at time of harvest. And of course there were many theoreticians in the Soviet Union and in Germany who were interested in breeding the human race. And of course it’s also led to new forms of representation of the body, and this way of looking at art is a bit more involving than looking at art like a pure aesthetic pleasure.

LS: Speaking of the kind of involvement evoked, some people might find the more surrealistic images of the body grotesque. How would you respond to that?

JC: If you are using the term grotesque, it applies to the whole production of modern art and contemporary art. All presentations of the body from Picasso on are grotesque; think of Jeff Koons. So what I try to do for the 30s is to show the ideological and biological basis of these grotesque appearances.

[Also,] it’s not all grotesque… the core of the exhibition are two large rooms filled with portraitures of individuals and these portraitures are very deeply moving because they represent individuals. So there is confronting what is happened at the time. And they are to me the most beautiful portraits that were made the art of painting. I’m thinking of Stanley Spencer and Balthus in France and Otto Dix in Germany and the creations of portraiture.

And of course if you’re doing this you’re also showing the plight of the individual against the growing power of the masses: masses of sportsmen, masses of soldiers and so on and so on.

LS: What about the person who comes to see this exhibit, and finds it really interesting, but goes home and says to themselves, how is this relevant to my life in 2008?

JC: Maybe two things [come to mind]… This is the first time that we are able to put on the walls paintings side by side of, for instance, Nazi totalitarianism on one side and Soviet totalitarianism on the other. Up to the late 80s that was impossible, and now it is possible to do the comparison. So it’s not only the 30s here, it’s the history of the Western world from 1917 up to the 90s… it’s very close.

The other thing which I think should interest people today again is the biological undertone. I mean, we are living in a society where eugenics is very, very powerful and the problems of eugenics are very, very present. We are dreaming again now to create a new man, beautiful, pure and immortal. Immortal would be perfection. And of course it’s not so easy. It’s not easy and it’s very dangerous. I mean, if you are dealing with illness, with death and with birth they are very burning questions again because of the progress of medicine, which is excellent. But on the other side we are turning to a new society of eugenics as in the 30s.

LS: Yes, there’s a lot of desire for perfection through plastic surgery too.

JC: Yes, altering one’s face… I’m not preaching, but just [looking at] an idea of a little closer and asking, where does it come from?

LS: This show promises to show how governments of the 30s used art styles to make their propaganda more appealing. Do you see that happening today?

JC: Well, it is very difficult to say. But the 1930s were the first time cinema, for instance, was used as a most powerful tool for propaganda. The reason why Italian artists became so famous in the 30s was Mussolini decided cinema was the art to be developed and it was the start of a school that began in propaganda films. The most striking [example] is the films of Leni Riefenstahl, which shows the very strong power of images through technology. And today of course we may think about the power of technology. It’s TV TV TV all the time.

But the exhibition is an exhibition of art; it does not have to have sociological overtones. The importance of the exhibition is made with masterpieces and we got loans of masterpieces by Picasso, by Dali by so many artists, by Pollock, by Spencer.

It’s a beautiful ensemble of masterworks.

LS: And this is what those people in the portraits were having to deal with.

JC: Yes, because it was really the time when individuals were confronted by the growing power of masses, masses being the army, being the political involvement, the political action. The 30s are filled with images of masses parading in the streets or in the stadiums, thousands and tens of hundreds of thousands of people, where they all look the same, like clones, very frightening images. So the individuals themselves become even more presences than ever and keep that even if they feel more lonely than others. So it was an explosion of an art of portraiture that had no precedent… for me the 20th century was not an age of abstraction, it was an age of portraiture—Lucian Freud, and so on, not abstractions.

LS: In the 1930s, Tarzan, Snow White and Superman all debuted in movies and comic books. How might we see that reflected in these artworks?

JC: Did you get that from the gallery? It’s totally stupid, I got furious when I read it. But of course there are a series of films that are very important, and these films which do relate to the theme very concretely. Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde. A Portrait of Dorian Gray. They are all about the same years and they make sense compared to what we are dealing with in the show.

LS: You’ve given me a lot of useful information here. But I wonder if there’s anything else you’d want the average Canadian to be aware of when looking at this exhibition.

JC: I don’t know. I guess it means something that the exhibition takes place in Canada, not elsewhere. Because maybe elsewhere it would be impossible. In Germany it is too touchy. In Russia it would be impossible, because the story’s still too hot. In Canada you can look at that at a certain distance without false passions. Because you are farther from it, Canada is a very good belvedere to look at that.

And well… I think it’s a good thing of the National Gallery to have undertaken.
It’s very difficult because when you are dealing with 200 masterpieces; it’s almost impossible to get the loans for more than four months.

LS: Will the show travel?

JC: It’s almost impossible to keep them traveling. But on the other side, I’m very struck by the fact that all the great museums in the world have agreed to lend works for something that is not an aesthetic project but that is a much more serious project. I think that is very important.

LS: Interesting. Outside of this project, are there any contemporary artists you really enjoy?

JC: I discovered Lucian Freud in the early 70s and at the time he was not considered, and now he is considered the very great painting artist. I am very proud I discovered him 40 years ago. But the youngest ones… I am looking at production today and it is corrupt with mercantilisms. So I’m not interested anymore.

LS: No art fairs for you.

JC: No, certainly not.

LS: And what’s on the agenda for you after this?

JC: I’m opening a Balthus exhibition in a few weeks for the centennial of Balthus. That’s in a few days. And then I have other projects but later I won’t go on about them before it’s written down.

LS: Well, thanks for your time, I know you must be very busy. And good luck with the show.


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