Natural Histories: Alfred Pacquement's Highlights from Art Paris 2022

Art Paris
Mar 28, 2022 10:05AM

Art historian and museum curator Alfred Pacquement shares his highlights from this year's edition of Art Paris. Alfred Pacquement was the director of the Musée National d’Art Moderne at the Centre Pompidou from 2000 to 2013, having previously worked there as a curator. He has also been the director of Jeu de Paume and held the positions of Visual Arts Delegate to the Ministry of Culture and director of the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts. He has written numerous books and catalogues on modern and contemporary art and curated a large number of exhibitions from the 1970s to the present day.

“The vitality of today’s artists’ interest for the animal and plant kingdoms is constantly being asserted as they explore, observe, and take stock, highlighting the beauty of nature, taking note of changes and threats, and investigating every state of its existence. You may have thought that painting flowers or portraying fauna was an artistic practice of a bygone era and yet it was the proliferation of all sorts of natural histories in contemporary art that led me to suggest this theme for the spring 2022 edition of Art Paris.

Etel Adnan
Découverte de l'immédiat 54, 2021
Galerie Lelong & Co.

Let’s go back to last autumn. While Art Paris was inaugurating the Grand Palais Éphémère, the organisers of new exhibitions around Paris seemed to have passed the word and decided to focus on themes in connection with nature. From the sensual flowers of Georgia O’ Keefe and Damien Hirst’s Cherry Blossoms to the immense elder leaf frottage of an acacia tree by Giuseppe Penone and the ever-changing light of Normandy captured by David Hockney, not forgetting a celebration of the king’s animals in Versailles, nature was literally everywhere. A simple coincidence? Probably not. Just as we were thinking we would soon see the end of this dangerous virus that had spread across the planet, a hope that was unfortunately unfounded, this celebration of nature by different artists came at just the right moment to draw our attention to the non-human living world. A world that current events have placed at the forefront of political preoccupations because of the extent to which endangered animal and plant species, global warming and the destruction of ecosystems affects the whole of humankind. In this respect, Nature, the superb film by Artavazd Pelechian presented at Fondation Cartier last year, is worthy of mention. A symphony of images, mainly amateur footage gathered from the Internet, it portrays the elemental forces of the earth and the environmental disasters in an apocalyptic vision of the potentially destructive forces of nature.

Gilles Aillaud
Coatis jaunes, 1982

When compiling the list of 20 or so artists from the French scene for Natural Histories, I realised that this subject was more topical than ever, and not just among artists. In fact, many intellectuals, philosophers, sociologists, and art historians are presently working in this field. To name just one example, in her remarkable essay Estelle Zhong-Mengual invites readers to apprehend the living world and its abundance of meaning through the eyes of artists, in particular 19th century American landscape painters and the work of women naturalists from the same period.

My chosen artists all share the same capacity for wonder. They marvel at what they see, have a common respect for and a desire to protect life and endeavour to portray living creatures that may be lacking in visibility. They explore the natural world using the means provided by scientific progress and images and, although few focus exclusively on nature, the sheer diversity of their practices and aesthetic choices contributes to making this ensemble all that more interesting.

One of the first names that came to mind was Gilles Aillaud. His portraits of animals in artificial zoo environments are imbued with an almost dramatic tension that contrasts with the outward appearance of his flatly painted and precisely composed works. He later went on to paint light-filled landscapes. Edi Dubien underlines the soothing and healing effect of an animal’s presence; man and animal coexist harmoniously in his portraits of childhood that illustrate how comfort can be found in nature. Éric Poitevin takes photos of forest animals and uses them in still lifes reminiscent of classical paintings, whereas the strange ceramic and bronze bestiary of Johan Creten brings together monumental birds and bats in powerful and often enigmatic hybrid representations that can be rather disturbing. Barthélémy Toguo invents a new, part human, part animal fauna in a visual comedy of animals that is reminiscent of the aristocracy’s portraits of dogs, whereas animals crop up in the multi-faceted sculptural universe of Guillaume Leblon in the form of allusions or borrowed elements.

Other artists prefer to collect, take stock of and gather plant matter, using the material of nature itself as their medium, rather than opting to represent nature in more typical mediums. Marinette Cueco weaves and knots delicate assemblages and produces herbariums in a corpus that constructs a poetic imaginary world, one whose poetry goes hand in hand with the humble nature of the elements she collects and assembles. As for Anne and Patrick Poirier, their herbariums and rose petal tattoos resonate with an approach akin to that of an archaeologist as, by making an inventory, they aim to better understand the present by reconstituting the past. There are some artists who choose to reveal nature’s hidden secrets by showing what is invisible to the naked eye. Dove Allouche for example cuts off slivers of rock to reveal the unsuspected world within, whereas Armelle de Sainte Marie reinvents the world of minerals with her cailloux-monde (world pebbles). Hugo Deverchère explores natural habitats using scientific techniques that allow him to analyse the transformation of matter, thereby providing the perfect illustration of the mysteries of the universe.

Dove Allouche
Aspergillus Pénicilloïdes 5226_62, 2016
gb agency

The ability to be filled with wonder is something that artists who go face to face with nature have in common. Jacqueline Lamba marvels at the landscapes bathed in light of the South of France, striving to capture that instant when light becomes form. Recreating the dense fabric of the forest undergrowth, the meticulous work of Eva Jospin makes the connexion between nature and architecture in the manner of 18th century follies, whereas Philippe Cognée recreates the leafy forest profusion, blurring forms as is his wont and bringing to life tormented landscapes and faded flowers that join everyday objects in his creations. The delicate transparency and voluptuous colours of the flowers of Carole Benzaken disappear in the formal confusion of the initial motif and when Tursic & Mille take an interest in landscapes, for example the Montagne Sainte-Victoire, it is then to splash colour over large black and white impressions, disturbing the image and deliberately breaking with an overly traditional form of representation.

After spending decades painting Mount Tamalpais in California, towards the end of her life, Etel Adnan began painting the objects that accompanied her day-to-day existence, such as bowls of fruit and vases of flowers, something she called “Discovery of the Immediacy”. In the work of Éric Poitevin, a single plant cuts vertically across an otherwise empty space and for Damien Cabanes a bouquet of amaryllis or a few anemones floating on the blank canvas suffice to express the verity of a painting or an image whose force lies precisely in its economy of means. Jean-Michel Othoniel selected a single rose among the many dotted here and there in paintings throughout the Louvre, whereas Justin Weiler chose to portray a succulent in a shop window.

The history of art began when the first cave painters depicted the animals they hunted. Today, several hundred centuries later, one thing we can be sure of is that, from landscapes and images of the natural world to still lifes, botanical inventories and fauna and flora represented in the simplest or the most complex manner, artists never tire of inventing new natural histories.”

–– Alfred Pacquement

Johan Creten
La Radicale, 2021
Jacqueline Lamba
Sans titre, 1975
Galerie Pauline Pavec
Guillaume Leblon
Fishes in the vase, 2015
Galerie Nathalie Obadia
Anne and Patrick Poirier
Archives, 2017
Galerie Mitterrand
Armelle de Sainte Marie
Hybride 27, 2022
Jean Fournier
Tursic & Mille
Landscape in red, 2017
Galerie Max Hetzler
Art Paris