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11 September 2013

Adventurer, journalist, businessman, pop philosopher and esteemed disseminator of Botulism… Bernard-Henri Lévy is clearly a busy man. He has however – to largely balanced cheers and groans in the French press – found the time to put together a major exhibition in the spectacular Modernist shell of Saint-Paul de Vence’s Fondation Maeght.

Entitled ‘Les aventures de la vérité’ (‘Adventures of Truth’), it seeks to explore the troubled relationship between Art and Philosophy. It’s a fascinating – if fairly loose – premise, and with their combined pulling power, the Fondation and France’s most famous public intellectual have faced few obstacles in sourcing a world-class range of exhibits.

What follows, though, is utter pandemonium, with none of the excitement that phrase might imply; there is indeed a lot of deservedly majuscule’d Great Art here – the sheer volume and scope is quite simply bewildering. For ‘Les aventures de la vérité’, Lévy and the Fondation Maeght have brought together 126 works, dating from 1460 to 2013 and taking in anything from Tintoretto to the Chapman Brothers via some over-familiar stopovers at Mondrian, Ellsworth Kelly, Sophie Calle and – of course! – Andy Warhol.

(1508–10), Lucas Cranach

Adam and Eve (1508–10), Lucas Cranach Photo: Pierre Guenat

Herein lies the first of several of several major problems. With only eight not particularly capacious rooms to exhibit this haul, it’s no surprise that the hanging is decidedly unsympathetic, jamming everything together so tightly that individual masterpieces – from Cranach’s Adam and Eve to Léger’s Contrastes de forme to Baselitz’s Amung Ahmung Smolny – find their brilliance buried; like a harmony group mucking in with a terrace chant, their voices are lost to the collective roar.

‘I am mixing time periods to make order,’ Lévy told the New York Times, ‘I want a Basquiat and a Bronzino to speak to each other.’ All very well, but… why? Whatever these excitable juxtapositions may mean to Lévy, more often than not we’re left none the wiser as to their relevance to the exhibition’s premise.

The desire to stop and examine, say, a Rubens anatomical study is tempered by the fact that it’s quite literally back-to-back with a Picasso nude, itself at risk of being devoured by Paul Klee’s Group of Masks. If indeed these works are ‘speaking to each other’ after the Fondation shuts for the night, they’re probably just fighting for more legroom.

‘Les aventures de la vérité’ unravels over seven sections, explained by captions that make only the most nominal effort to relate the exhibits to their cryptic pontification: first up is Curse of the Shadows, an exploration of ‘the artist’s response to the first philosophers’, then Staging a Coup, an attempt to explain ‘the holiness of the image’, then The Royal Road, which has something or other to do with… oh, forget it.

By this point, the migraine has well and truly set in; genuine interest fades to a polite endeavour to keep trying. Then comes indifference – then comes a desire to scream and break ranks for the exit, regardless of whether or not a Daniel Buren or two get damaged in the process.

It might be reasonable to suppose that the convoluted, near meaningless notes in the exhibition guide could be attributed to a poor translation; French, after all, is a language far more tolerant of a florid turn of phrase than English. But comparing the text in both languages, it’s immediately apparent that showy, self-congratulatory nonsense is something common to all tongues.

There is surely a brilliant exhibition somewhere in the intellectual wreckage of ‘Les aventures de la vérité’, possibly contrasting European narratives of Art and Philosophy with those of other cultures (the existence of a World beyond the Western NATO nations is only hinted at). Interesting though the notion behind it might be, it’s no excuse for a show that wastes a wonderful space whilst subordinating a first-rate collection and a curious public to its curator’s open-shirted egotism.

‘Les aventures de la vérité’ is at the Fondation Maeght until 11 November 2013.