“Eloge de l’inactualité / Eulogy for another area / Elogio del non attuale”

Text written for the solo show catalogue edited in 2003, Galerie Alain Le Gaillard, Paris, FR

Eulogy for another area

Les peintres témoins de leur temps : for a long time the name of this parisian gallery established in the fifties, made me chuckle. The subjects exhibited – “Sundays”, “Happiness” or “Conquests of modern science” – which in hindsight seem to have been directly dreamt up by Bouvard and Pécuchet, still entertain us. What’s the point, I wondered, of explointing art in the futile attempt to portray our times? That is now the job of journalists and photographers. Artists portray a period with the tools of their period. But it was wrong, at least about that last point.
For someone who did not experience Berlin in the twenties ( myself included obviously), the portrait of Sylvia von Harden or the Metropolis triptych seem now to convey an aspect of the period that one cannotfind so effectively from any artist of the time – maybe because Otto Dix did not intend his painting to be current: his subjects were of this time but his style was inspired by nostalgia for Cranach, Dürer and Hans Baldung Grien.
Whilst renowned painters, at least those who merit this title, have portrayed currently relevant subjects for decades, the great cartoonists, skilfully sheltered behind the infamous comic strip label, have nevertheless continued to capture the spirit of the time via their drawings or paintings. I can think of no better stylistic architectural analysis in the fifties than the Spirou albums (written by Franquin or his assistants, including Willy Maltaite). If you whish to see how people looked in the seventies, a drawing by Robert Crumb is a thousand times more representative than all the fashion photographs that you could find of the time.

Today, Julien Beneyton paints Barbès square, Buttes Chaumont, the Tati store, Ibrahima fishmongers and Djiby with playfull complacency akin to Robert Crumb, with urban landscapes from the seventies in the background: his canvasses depict a popular and inventive image of image of Paris which managed to adapt and survive (rejecting all the urban projects of the town planners) but he only portrayed the salient points without turning them into caricature, or naïve apology.
In his painting of the Châteaurouge station he sees and reveals to us a police car, which appaers like a cheap toy (either comforting or worrying depending on whether you support the police or the criminals), a modern reincarnation of a classical forum in the entrance to a metro, an imitation of Buckminster Fuller pastiche architecture, in the form of a newspaper kiosk, standing like a mushroom on a tipical large parisian boulevard; contradictory street signs which confuse the passers by; a Kentucky Fried Chicken sign (which I suppose is an American design, but whith a strangely Soviet aspect: you would guess it was Leon Trotsky’s face) that dominates the butchers Amar Frères… like fims of Rohmer, Klapisch or Podalidès, in their sham modesty, Beneyton paintings with their false air of the past like Jules Lefranc.
All this conveys much about their period that remains hidden to those who buy the newest gadget from Colette or Microsoft.

Didier Semin

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