Among the many attractions and absurdities this year’s expansive Forum festival conjured up to promote boomtown Barcelona, the MACBA’s major survey show ‘Art and Utopia: Action Restricted’ stood out by virtue of its ambition to go beyond the obvious. It used the format of the blockbuster exhibition to stage a refined re-reading of Modernism, with curator Jean-François Chevrier choosing the persona of Stéphane Mallarmé as a prism through which to project his outlook on the history of avant-gardism.
In his essay ‘L’action restreinte’ (The Restricted Action, 1897), from which the exhibition takes the second part of its title, Mallarmé argued against direct political involvement and for the critical potential inherent in the free play of the poetic imagination. In the same spirit Chevrier stressed in his curatorial statement that his stakes were placed on the ‘anarchic freedom of art opposed to the search for collective style’. Accordingly the show portrayed the unfolding of modernity not as a succession of movements and -isms but as a series of interconnected singularities. With individualists such as Odilon Redon and Mallarmé, Marcel Duchamp and Antonin Artaud or Marcel Broodthaers and John Cage as chief witnesses, Chevrier thus rewrote the story of Modernism as a genealogy of subversive intellectualism.
Consequently Chevrier jettisoned colourful clichés of the avant-gardist as agent provocateur or flamboyant bohemian in favour of a more sober, or even sombre, image of the modern artist as auteur. With Mallarmé as his point of reference, Chevrier modelled the role of the visual artist on that of the solitary writer and recast art practice as an ‘action limited to the scene of writing’. In keeping with this approach, the design of the exhibition was dominated by the presence of numerous avant-gardist publications, manifestos and journals, presented in spacious display cases alongside paintings, prints and collages. Modernity was thus staged as an archive of textual fragments rather than a spectacle of visual epiphanies, and recurrent text panels with Mallarmé quotes established the poet as the first-person narrator of the show’s historic narrative. His persona became the vessel that transported you back in time and framed your gaze as that of a detached, knowledgeable and somewhat dandified observer.
With all due respect for the philosophy underpinning the exhibition, and for the manner of its realization, some critical points need to be made. It is almost impossible not to understand the plea for detachment as a reflection of the MACBA’s own determination to refrain from any comment on the political realities of rampant gentrification reinforced by the Forum festival (under whose auspices the show was staged). The show’s claim to criticality could also be seen as being undermined by the fact that its selection of artists only mildly reshuffled the canon – with familiar white male Europeans and North Americans still ruling the roost – and by the way the overall tone of academic sophistication stayed firmly within the bounds of good taste. Yet such objections verge on the hypocritical, and there remains a lot to be said for Chevrier’s approach. One needs to be reminded that the benchmark for modern art retrospectives is today set by touring exhibitions of the Guggenheim and MoMA type, which have people queuing up for hours to check if the Modern Masters are as good on the museum wall as they are on the poster. Chevrier, by contrast, avoided this strategy of triumphantly dishing up masterworks and based his dramaturgy instead on a discursive logic of exemplifying meaningful relations between the works. In this context even Picasso looked less like the alpha male genius we are usually led to assume he was, and more like someone who simply had one or two valuable contributions to make to the discourse of avant-gardism.
Among the strong individual moments in the show was a cabinet containing work from the immediate postwar period. The introverted destructiveness of Wols’ drawings was enhanced by a recording of Artaud screeching his pour finir avec le jugement de Dieu (1947) and opened up to a political horizon in a series of paintings by Wladislaw Strzeminski, ‘To my Friends the Jews’ (1945), in which the artist juxtaposed abstract structures with images of atrocities from concentration camps. Another cabinet assembled works by less well-known Constructivist artists Alexei Kruchenykh, Lioubov Popova and Olga Rozanova, who set out to promote a universal visual language in small, playful collages made from geometric paper cut-outs. The spirit of crisis and experiment came alive in the electricity generated between related works.
However, any survey show is always haunted by the presence of its logistical apparatus. The vast amount of exhibits on show at MACBA made you imagine a different ‘scene of writing’: the filling out of the copious paperwork required to borrow all the assembled works. One obvious drawback of a successful survey is that it testifies to the availability of art. But is Modernism really still available? Or is the only way to show (or do) modern art today to acknowledge the impossibility now of being modern? In this light the strength of this exhibition lay in Chevrier’s gesture of recasting modernity as a phantasm, by portraying it as a dream Mallarmé might have dreamt.