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).

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.

Partly this is because major institutions are unwilling to part with major artists' work, Jeffrey indicates, for theme exhibitions of this kind. But partly he prefers it this way.

He points out: ``Once you start stuffing your exhibitions with Manet, Renoir, Millet, Courbet, you get an audience which does pious responses; whereas, there are a lot of very good other artists ... who, in a sense, make more of an invitation to discuss their works - it becomes a more accessible and open exhibition.''

He goes on, ``We think of the great names of French art as being the painters. But the French strength has always been in drawing - representaion of language and situation.'' Showing me several drawings by Paul Gavarni (1804-66), he says, ``He didn't bother much with painting. He simply drew all his life. He is one of the great artists who demonstrate relations between people,... the art of disenchantment,... the perfect summing up of writers like Balzac. ... But he was an illustrator.''

We move on to a vast painting exhibited in the Salon of 1896, a highly emotive and melodramatic affair by Evariste-Vital Luminais called ``Abduction of a Woman by Norsemen in the 9th Century.'' Horrific? Not to Ian Jeffrey.

``A very successful Salon painting. The painters we know nowadays - Renoir, Monet, and the rest - were minor artists compared to someone like Luminais. If you read French literary memoirs, the people - like Simone de Beauvoir - mentioned aren't Manet, but Luminais.''

Jeffrey sees this kind of painting ``as a way of reflecting on French history: a way of, perhaps, coping with certain brutal elements in current culture - rows and disagreements, the difference between a feminine, caring view of society and the necessary rumbustious masculine view, which has to go against it.''

Highly popular art of this sort is praised by Jeffrey because ``it put itself in the public domain.'' But, on the whole, his aim has been not to display public art.

``The exhibition is more the concealed or intimate side of the French psyche, as far as I could illustrate it. Public art tends to be too finished; it tends to give little away.''

There are a number of well-known names in the exhibition: Rodin, L'eger, Picasso, Rouault, Bonnard, Matisse, Braque. There is a wistful, poignant portrait done by Puvis de Chavannes of his mother. And there is one of Balthus's internalized dreams of adolescent womanhood.

But here such known artists have to rub elbows with the eccentric, the bizarre, and the hitherto unknown.

Quite telling in Jeffrey's eyes as a further aspect of the French view of woman, is a charming portrait (1914) of a young girl in a white dress by an earlier unknown, Gaston Schnegg, from Bordeaux. ``She's a youngster,'' Jeffrey says appreciatively of the sitter in this painting. ``She's a sort of proto-modernist, ... the new world of the interwar years signaled in her - hope in youth,... a red ribbon in her hair, a white dress. She's pure, wonderfully pure.''

But, Jeffrey adds - like a magician who has managed to surprise even himself by producing a white rabbit out of a hat - ``Who is Schnegg? Schnegg? Very few people, even in Paris, have heard Schnegg.... A complete novelty, and a very considerable artist.''

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