jan fabre at the Louvre:

a rebel besmirching the temple under the auspices of a queen....

Marie-Laure Bernadac, who has equally curated 'Feminine/Masculine: The Sex of Art' (Beabourg, 1995), ''Présumés innocents' (Bordeaux, 2000), and Louise Bourgeois at Beaubourg, has invited Jan Fabre for the forth annual exhibition 'Counterpoint'': 'The Angel of Metamorphosis' (2008).

The exhibition has been opened by Her Majesty Queen Paola Ruffo di Calabria of the Kingdom of Belgium.

Jan Fabre: 'I am the first living artist to get a solo exhibition at the Louvre'. Reason enough to triumph! After all, not everybody is allowed to engage in a dialogue with the Flemish masters of the past in no less than 39 rooms of the Richelieu Wing of the Louvre in Paris!

Reason enough, also, to have a closer look at this megalomaniac enterprise.

As could be expected from someone who has to stuff some 39 galleries, not all the works are new Many of the 'installations' have been exhibited elsewhere: suffice it to refer to works like 'Sanguis sum' (2001); 'the dung-beetle' (2001); 'Vermis Dorsualis & Devil Masks' (2002); 'Still life with artist' (2004); 'Sarcofago Conditus' (2003); 'The Messengers of Death decapitated' (2006) and 'I let myself drain (2006), this time with a portrait of Philip the Good after Rogier van der Weyden.

In other installations, new elements are introduced. The Venice version of The man spitting on his grave (Palazzo Benzon, 2007) has been recycled as 'Self portrait as the biggest worm of the world' (2008). Jan Fabre hanging from the ceiling has been replaced by Jan Fabre as an earthworm, repeating the phrase 'I want to draw my head out of the hangman's rope of history': a seemingly humble gesture, which is immediately spoiled by the artist's contention that this creature 'fertilises the soil', if not by the sole new title: Fabre is the biggest among other earthworms - great artists and philosophers, who have been reduced to the status of insect.

To be sure, there are also new works created especially for the exhibition. Most conspicuous is the installation in the Lefuel staircase: 70 Murano glass pigeons painted in bic blue, Fabre's trade mark, with the illuminating title: "Shitting rats of heaven and doves of peace' (2008). As could be expected from Jan Fabre, who is fond of body fluids, they are defecating all over the stairwell. Not otherwise than 'Totem' and 'The legs of reason skinned' (2000), a gesture that lays bare the truth that goes hidden behind the seeming 'humility' of 'I let myself drain': instead of drawing the conclusion that he would better resign from painting when he is not able to equal the old masters, Jan Fabre not only deems himself so important that he has himself cast in wax to commemorate his impotence, but has at the same time his Fabre-blue pigeons sh.t on the walls of the respectable museum where those very masters are celebrated. It reminds me of that other hero of abject fluids: Paul McCarthy who cannot stop repeating that painting is nothing more that smearing canvasses with sh.t.

Equally new is 'Votive offering to the god of insomnia' (2008) made of wax appendages covered with glass eyes. According to the press release, it is 'about the difficulty of falling asleep due to the seductions of the world of the senses, symbolized by the numerous landscapes and portraits hanging in room 30'. According to Jan Fabre himself, it 'refers' to Georges Bataille's 'Histoire de l'oeil'. There are worlds apart, however, between a really Bataillesque work like Hans Bellmer's 'La Poupée', and Jan Fabre's creation, where the relation is purely superficial: a mere 'reference'.

Also the presumed 'dialogue' between the works of Jan Fabre and the Old masters comes down to a rather fortuitous juxtaposition on mostly superficial grounds. In some cases, there may be a hint of a thematic relation. Thus, the gilded nail man 'Sarcofago Conditus' (2003), is presented opposite works by Hans Memling that are supposed to 'pay tribute to death and resurrection', whereby the distinctive characteristic of this tomb lies precisely in the fact that the body is covered with gilded nails. I do not feel anything 'reverberate' with that central given in the entire room. Merely literal is the juxtaposition of drawings on banknotes 'Money Collages' with Marinus van Reymerswaele’s 'Tax Collectors', or of drawings with the artist’s own blood (from the 1978 solo performance 'My Body, My Blood, My Landscape') with the 'Martyrdom of Saint Denis' by Henri Bellechose. In other cases, the relation seems to be dragged in by the head and shoulders. Thus, the display cases presenting 'Vermis Dorsualis & Devil Masks' (2002) (meant is: dorsalis) are supposed to allude to the 'finery worn by Hélène Fourment in the portrait by Rubens and the whiteness of her skin'. And 'The dung-beetle' (2001), a sphere made of scarab wing sheaths, topped with a backbone and positioned on an oversized stained mattress, is supposed to 'dialogue' with (the splendor of the fabric and the pearls ornamenting) the robe in the portrait of Maria de Medicis by Frans II Pourbus... In other rooms the relation is purely external, as when Jan Fabre uses the colour of paintings of Justus of Ghent as a mere pretext to deploy four drawings ('The Hour Blue').

The blatant superficiality of the relation between the works of this 'contemporary giant' with the old masters, then, obliges us to question the declared intentions of this show. According to the press release, the 'universe of the artist' is connected 'with the main themes running through the Louvre’s collections' so that the visitor can 'rediscover celebrated works by old masters through the eyes of this major artist of the contemporary scene'. I must confess that I really do not see what the 40 tons of black marble and that bluntly ridiculous earthworm of Jan Fabre can add to the already impressive body of texts that has been produced on the subject of Rubens' Medici Cycle. We really had not to await the advent of this genius to understand that there is some contradiction between the pomp of this series and the rather insignificant queen it is celebrating, especially since there is an even greater contradiction between the tons of marble and the futility of the message they are supposed to convey. Granted, in the last instance even Peter-Paul Rubens and other 'old masters', are meaningless insects on the surface of the earth. But that does not amount to say that all the earthworms are of the same caliber. Although Fabre esteems that he is the biggest of them all, as far as I am concerned, he does not at all deserve a place in the Pantheon of the 'great insects of our planet', except then as a parasite that feasts upon the corpses of his illustrious predecessors (if not as a pigeon that has to content itself with sh.tting on the tombstones).

The sheer incongruence between the futility of the presumed 'rediscovery' and the megalomania of the enterprise - 39 galleries and 40 tons of marble - betrays that something else must be at stake here: it is obvious that the declared intention is a mere disguise for something totally opposite. The emphasis with which Jan Fabre's works are confronted - put on a par - with the works of the old masters is one single giant non-verbal statement: that Jan Fabre deserves his place among the heroes in the Louvre as a Pantheon of the Arts, if not that his works is worth so much more than all the old masters together. For, Jan Fabre is not only the first living artist that is allowed to stuff 39 galleries in the Louvre: for centuries, the dead masters had to content themselves with far less - although to a painter with the stature of a Jan van Eyck, some square meter on a single wall suffice to tell what Jan Fabre will never be able to, even when he would summon up even more tons of granite in even more galleries. The formula - the endorsement of would-be artworks with masterpieces in the museums - is becoming increasingly popular. Suffice it to refer to Spencer Tunick, who had one of his 'body sculptures' emphatically piled up in front of Rubens' 'Venus and Adonis' in Düsseldorf (2006), a gesture that does not suffice, however, to turn the 'displayed reality' of his piled up naked bodies into a 'sculpture', let alone into a composition that could match the grandeur of say Rubens' 'Fall of the Angels'. During the summer of that same year 2006,also Jan Fabre, as in a kind of rehearsal for the present show, had the attributes and video-tapes of his poor performance 'Virgin-Warrior/Warrior-Virgin' with Marina Abramovicexhibited in the prestigious Rubens Hall in the Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp ('Homo Faber', 2006), as if we were dealing here with comparable items, let alone comparable quality... Also the photographers have successfully used the technique in their endeavour to conquer the temples of art (see Andreas Gursky and Joel-Peter Witkin).

All these so-called 'dialogues' or 'confrontations' - counterpoints - are themselves an offshoot of the technique of 'reference' which became so popular in the age of postmodernism, when many a would-be artist deemed it sufficient to allude to some masterpiece to make art, or art with the quality of the work referred to. Take Heaven of Delight of Jan Fabre himself. No doubt, the title refers to Hieronymus Bosch. But that does not Fabre's ceiling turn it into a 'Sistine Chapel', and even less does it elevate Jan Fabre to the rank of Hieronymus Bosch. And the same holds for Paul McCarthy's 'Butt Plug: even when it is said to refer to Constantin Brancusi, it is certainly not a match to the sculptures of that master.

The truth is that a genuine 'dialogue' or 'confrontation' with the old masters is not so much a question of referring, let alone of bluntly usurping the temple with tons of marble, but rather of producing artworks that are a real match to those of the masters: just think of Ludwig van Beethoven's 'Diabelli Variations' as a response to Bach's 'Goldberg Variations', or of Anton Bruckner's or Gustav Mahler's Ninth Symphonies as a response to Ludwig van Beethoven's Ninth. Or of Manet's Olympia and Titian's Venus of Urbino. Can you imagine Jan Fabre reaching such heights? I guess he is better at 'sh.tting'.... After all, Jan Fabre's works really do not belong in the Louvre. Not far from Paris, there is a place where they would find a more appropriate natural habitat: Euro Disney. Granted: could you imagine a better place for his 'Searching for Utopia'? Also his newest metamorphosis into an earthworm would certainly be welcomed there...

Having Murano glass pigeons sh.t on the walls of the Louvre: even more eloquently than 'The Legs of Reason Skinned' or' 'Totem', 'Shitting rats of heaven and doves of peace' epitomises the true nature of our so-called 'enfant terrible'. All his sh.tting and shocking is not more than the blind and pointless rebellion of the petty-bourgeois, that nearly disguises the equally petty-bourgeois rancour of not belonging to the upper class - or, for that matter, to the gallery of the giants of the past. Luckily for Jan Fabre, Queen Paola herself has elevated him to a higher rank by having our universal genius decorate the ceiling of the Mirror Hall in her palace ('Heaven of delight'), and having her husband, King Albert II, elevate him to the rank of 'Grand Officer in the Order of the Crown of Belgium' (!!!) A pity that our Queen no longer belongs to the kind of aristocracy that was not only an aristocracy of blood, but also an aristocracy of taste. Granted: there is a difference between Julius II who had Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel and sculpt his tomb, and someone who is proud to be the patron of a would-be artist that has Murano-glass pigeons sh.t on the walls of the Louvre....Not only is Queen Paola a mere shadow ofthat shadow of a queen, Maria de Medici - petty aristocracy so to speak - she even does not seem to realise that her protégé is no more than a mere shadow - a caricature - of Rubens. Although she must surely have felt reassured to see her choice confirmed by the sanctification of her protégé in the Holy of Holiest: the Louvre. A pity, again, that, apparently, the keys to the temple are no longer kept by the so scorned 'grand custodians of art', but rather by that new race of enlightened 'petty curators' that has sworn not to miss another Van Gogh. A shadow of a queen, opening the show of the shadow of an artist, in what has become the shadow of a 'museum', applauded by scores of well-dressed petty-revolutionaries who come to install the Emperor of Artistic Impotence on his Sh.tting Chair in the Louvre: do not miss that show!

Next stop in Bayreuth?

©Stefan Beyst, April 2008.

Fortunately, we do not stand not alone: also French historian Jean-Louis Harouel virulently criticises Jan Fabre's exhibit at the Louvre in 'Le Figaro'. A quotation: 'Contemporary art, which isn't art, seeks to assume an artistic legitimacy by establishing a forced confrontation with the greatest works of art. It sucks the lifeblood out of them to try to affirm its own standing as a real piece of art'. See also: 'La vampirisation du Louvre'.

Lynn Barber in 'The Guardian' writes 'What a miserable worm!'. 'I would have thought any first-year art student would leap at the chance of making a giant worm for the Louvre, but Fabre gives us the sort of standard-issue, beige draught-excluder you could find at any craft fayre.'

Kimberly Bradley in Artnet: 'The relation of Fabre’s objects (and the ego they represent) to the classical works in the Louvre is uncertain, ambiguous, arbitrary.'

Following quotation speaks volumes about the fans of Jan Fabre: 'Jan Fabre work is now being exhibited at the Louvre in Paris, and, his work: "Self Portrate as the World Biggest Worm" is like a ray of sunshine amongst all the biblical, classical and renessance era crap that's there.' (Moon babies).

See also:

Aude de Kerros: À quoi sert l'exposition Jan-Fabre au Louvre ?

Interview with Christine Sourgins ('Les mirages de l'Art contemporain'): Prise d'otage au musée du Louvre

Culture Wars

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