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Socialism Today 123 - November 2008

The enigmatic dealer

Miró, Calder, Giacometti, Braque: Aimé Maeght and his artists

Royal Academy of Arts

4 October 2008 to 2 January 2009

£9 (full price – concessions available)

Reviewed by

Manny Thain

THE EXHIBITION is not so much about the artists as the Maeght Gallery itself, founded in Paris by Aimé and Marguerite Maeght at the end of 1945 (just over a year after the city had been liberated from Nazi occupation). It is artistically interesting. The four main artists on show (plus walk-on parts for Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard) were influential: Joan Miró, Alfredo Giacometti, Georges Braque and Alexander Calder.

In 1936, the Maeghts opened a shop in Cannes on the French Riviera, selling furniture, radios, and pictures by local artists. Aimé, who had trained as a lithographer, ran a print studio out of the premises. In 1941, they met Pierre Bonnard. The Maeghts began selling his paintings, developing a close working and personal relationship, as they did with many of the artists they worked with.

An intriguing aspect, not explored in this exhibition, is how it was possible for the Maeghts to operate during the years of war and occupation. The majority of France was under direct Nazi occupation, the south-east corner ruled by the Vichy government of French collaborators. The Maeghts widened their circle to many of the artists who had fled direct Nazi rule.

Maeght set about recovering Bonnard’s paintings from his studio in Paris. As Maeght was originally from the north, it was easier for him to travel there. He would pick up Bonnard’s pictures, paint landscape scenes over them in gouache, a water-based paint, signing them as his own work. On his return south, the gouache was washed away to reveal the originals, unharmed. He provided this service for other artists, too. Maeght became their go-between and fixer, acquiring artworks along the way. Of course, this risky endeavour was not a purely charitable exercise. He made a lot of money out of it.

This knowledge is not essential in evaluating the art on show in this exhibition. But it raises some important questions. And isn’t it remiss of an exhibition which aims to deal with the close relationships between these very influential gallery owners and artists not to explore it in some detail? It is, after all, key to understanding how the Maeghts were able to rise to pre-eminence in the contemporary art scene in the years immediately after the second world war.

Setting up the Maeght Gallery in Paris at the end of 1945 proved to be exceptionally good timing. Paris had been liberated in August 1944 but war still raged elsewhere in Europe. German cities were being flattened by British bombers and Soviet tanks. Britain was still being bombed. There was little competition, therefore, from inside or outside of France.

Its first exhibition, in December 1945, was of works by Matisse. The gallery was innovative. Aimé and Marguerite Maeght experimented with thematic exhibitions. Aimé was particularly interested in collaborations between artists and writers, using his printing expertise to produce limited edition books and print series, some fine examples of which are displayed in this exhibition.

Of the four featured artists, the first two we encounter are the Spanish Catalan, Joan Miró (1893-1993), and the American, Alexander Calder (1898-1976). They met in Paris in 1928 and remained close friends up until Calder’s death.

Calder trained as a mechanical engineer in New Jersey, USA. Mobiles (suspended) or stabiles (ground-based) that move in the air were his speciality. Cat Snake (1968) is here behind glass, static, trapped. In a film loop of Calder working, we see him place the near-flat metal cat’s head onto the tip of the snakelike body. He spins it on its point horizontally. This sets the body oscillating vertically. The creature comes to life. Similarly, in the film, Calder enters his studio giving one of the mobiles a slap, sending it twirling violently. He induces movement in another by blowing it. Seeing him do that is to get what this is about: movement and life.

The film loops are a good idea, affording a glimpse into the worlds of these artists. Unfortunately, the angle at which the screens are tilted makes it impossible to get a clear view. To minimise the image distortion, it is necessary to press right up against the glass cabinets.

The Maeght Gallery was the venue for the International Surrealist Exhibition in 1947. It was organised by André Breton (one of the movement’s founders, marking his return to Europe from the US) and Marcel Duchamp. But what did surrealism have to say in the immediate post-war period that marked it out from the post-Russian revolution period of its birth, or the tumultuous 1930s? On this, the exhibition offers no information.

Miró’s Superstition (1947), a large serpent-shaped frieze, was painted for that exhibition and dominates one of the walls. Lack of space, however, makes it difficult to look at, except by getting too close. Step back and the display cabinet gets in the way! In the corner of the room stands his Constellation (1972) a large half-spherical sculpture on a pole. The rough facing surface is a dull green circle, cut by a deep clean incision, smooth and brown inside. A sphere protrudes two-thirds of the way down, the rounded back, smooth and black.

Next is a room featuring Georges Braque (1882-1963) and Alberto Giacometti (1901-66). There are a few paintings by Braque which recall his earlier cubist works – the revolutionary art form he developed with Pablo Picasso in 1909-10. But these are from the late 1940s and mid 1950s. There are country scenes, too. Thick browns, heavy greens. A skeletal horse-drawn plough lies in a field alone, white, like weather-whitened bone.

The most dynamic Braque paintings in this room are from 1931. Images are formed from cuts into plaster painted black, revealing thin white lines, crosshatched ‘shading’, some light brown. Figures emerge from the black background, representing the creation of the immortals in Theogony by the eighth century Greek poet, Hesiod.

Giacometti’s sculptures stand out. Standing Woman 1 (1960) is nearly nine feet tall (2.7m). Greened bronze, rigid, straight, thin, frail, distant. He modelled his sculptures in clay, cutting into the figure, whittling it down, sticking bits back on to create his trademark rough, hazy and distorted surface. Dog (1957) is emaciated, head down, plodding on. Giacometti said he imagined himself as a dog, prowling the streets at night. Walking Man 1 (1960) leans forward, his legs striding, hands fixed to his hips. Another sculpture is Spoon Woman (1926), a ‘classically’ cubist/African form, from the time when Giacometti was a fellow-traveller of the cubists and surrealists – a totally different era from the other three main sculptures mentioned above. As with the earlier Braque, no connection is made between earlier and later works. They just are.

The fourth and final room reveals more of an idea of what Aimé Maeght was about artistically. Here we see the fruits of the collaborations between artists and text. This room features the journal, Derrière Le Miroir (Behind the Mirror), produced to accompany the exhibitions at the gallery, each with an original lithograph by the exhibited artist on the cover. From 1946-82, 253 issues appeared, 168 of them on show here, an arresting display of Braque, Miró, Giacometti, Calder, Francis Bacon, Marc Chagall, Vasili Kandinsky, André Derain and many others. Other limited edition illustrated books and publications are on display.

It is refreshing to move away from the information overload of the blockbuster exhibitions all too prevalent in major exhibition spaces today. And there is much of genuine interest in this exhibition. But it feels like a lost opportunity. The story of how the owners of a shop in the south of France became leading figures in contemporary art for a time has to be a fascinating one. This exhibition, however, does not do it justice, leaving too many questions unanswered.


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