La Maison Rouge, a private contemporary arts foundation, started their 2017 season with a bang. Curated by Guillaume Désanges and François Piron, L’Esprit Français: Countercultures 1969-1989 shows a comprehensive collection of political protest journals and avant-garde creative works in art, cinema, and music. Here, political idealism and nihilism stand side by side.
Protesting de Gaulle’s tight-laced vision for France, students in the May ‘68 riots called for a breakdown of hierarchy in favor of a socialist France. The riots shoved an unwilling France into an uncomfortable friction zone, sandwiched between youth discontent and rigid mainstream culture. While chronic dissatisfaction has long been a hallmark of French culture, the birth of French counterculture took critical discontent to new heights.
Rejecting mainstream French identity, counterculture thinkers embraced self-expression. Frustrated creatives and politicos turned away from traditional channels in favor of self-expression through new magazines like Libération and Hara Kiri, which later became Charlie Hebdo. Similarly, notebooks by the political film collective Dzinga Vertov and punk graphics by Collectif Bazooka used irony to command attention.
The exhibition is broad with issues ranging from sexuality to education to equality. For the anglophone, L’Espirit Français can be intimidating. There are no helpful translations in English to accompany the pieces. Similarly, the sheer breadth and nature of the subject matter can feel chaotic. However, there are pearls tucked away in the riotous jumble.
Roland Topor and Henri Xhonneux’s 1989 Marquis reimagines Marquise de Sade’s life and work by actors in 18th century dress and animal masks. The effect is surreal—a bizarre animal sex fantasy.
A 1975 news clip interviews students and professors of the radical Université de Vincennes (Paris VIII) describing a university without hierarchy. Nonchalant professors shrug off conservative critique by comparing the new institution to the progressive atmosphere at California’s UC Berkeley.
An audiovisual nook features two clips of Serge Gainsbourg. In one, Gainsbourg declares, “Je suis un insoumis qui a redonné à La Marseillaise son sens initial,” (“I’m a rebel who’s given the original meaning back to the Marseillaise,”) in response to the controversy surrounding his reggae reimagining of the French national anthem. Another shows Gainsbourg, louche in his dark sunglasses, as he purchases the original manuscript of “La Marseillaise” at auction, surrounded by paparazzi.
L’Espirit Français: Countercultures 1969-1989 presents the powerful voice of creatives who made it their mission to reimagine French identity, forging fissures that remain today. The counterculture roars, highlighting injustice and praising subversion with fierce enthusiasm.
L’Espirit Français: Countercultures 1969-1989
until May 21, 2017
La Maison Rouge
10, boulevard de Bastille, 75012
Metro: Quai de la Rappée, Bastille
Check the site for opening hours