French Images of Womanhood. UNORTHODOX EXHIBITION
IT can't have escaped many people's attention by now that that 1989 is the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. There's a proliferation of bicentennial exhibitions, concert programs, lectures, TV documentaries, and magazine articles, which look at France today, France in 1789, and France at most points in between. What must surely be one of the most unconventional exhibitions to join these celebrations is at London's Hayward Gallery (through April 16), later moving north to Liverpool (May 3 to June 11 at the Walker Art Gallery).Skip to next paragraph
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Called ``La France: Images of Woman and Ideas of a Nation 1789-1989,'' it is a theme exhibition put together, after a considerable amount of incognito grubbing around in obscure French museums, by one of Britain's more practiced compilers of theme exhibitions, writer and critic Ian Jeffrey.
``It's an attempt to see some way inside the French mind,'' Mr. Jeffrey says.
He has pulled together a hotch-potch of sculpture, painting, cartoons, photographs, engravings, lithographs, wood carvings, newspaper art, book illustration - you name it - that seem to make it clear enough that the French mind is, indeed, peculiarly obsessed with womanhood, with the image of woman, with the symbolism of woman in an astonishing variety of manifestations: nurse, mother, wife, lover, formidable heroine, cosmeticized model, pin-up, temptress, allegory figure, and unattainable ideal. Above all, she appeals to the French sense of national identity far more potently than any masculine image could, argues Jeffrey.
He talks with a kind of calculated openness about the works he has selected. His slightly pedantic volubility - spiced with a nice irony - betrays enthusiasm as well as an omnivorous cultural appetite.
The French mind, he says, is ``made up, like our own minds, of fragments from history, bits and pieces of ideals, collapsed ideals, hoped-for destinies, and such like.''
His exhibition, too, is an array of this and that. He shows me, for example, ``two wonderful things'' he got from La Rochelle, ``which show the myth in the making.'' The myth in question is ``Marianne,'' a 19th-century product of the popular French imagination, ``a gift to painters, sculptors, and cartoonists,'' in Jeffrey's words. He describes her as ``a sort of younger sister'' and ``a charming creature who might be shaped or dreamed at will.''
These two little pictures suggest how this imaginary girl came to represent the patriotism of France. They are storytelling pictures from the mid-19th century, almost na"ive art. Above them on the wall are two small wood-relief heads of Marianne from the same museum.
Jeffrey criticizes French museums generally for having gotten rid of such examples of folk art. ``The museums have whitewashed themselves, made themselves respectable,'' he complains. But he praises the museum in La Rochelle for being mercifully ``unreformed.''
This exhibition is filled, as far as he could manage it, with ``unreformed'' pieces - works by obscure, forgotten, and academic artists famous in their day but demoted in ours, and new artists who are little known. It's not a prestige show.