Marie-Noëlle Farcy, curator at Mudam and Andrea Jahn, director of the Saarlandmuseum in Saarbrucken discuss their joint exhibition Face-à-Face, which juxtaposes classics of the modern era with contemporary pieces

New dimensions

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 07.10.2022

d’Land: How did the idea of Face-à-face come about?

Marie-Noëlle Farcy: We wanted to do a collaboration between our two institutions and we thought it could be a dialogue between our collections. Still, it took a while to get to Face-à-Face. Generally, the idea of opening the collection to neighbouring collections has been taking on more importance. It’s the first time we do it with a public institution, though – and in that way, it’s a kind of stepping stone program.

Andrea Jahn: The Mudam and the Saarlandmuseum have different focuses. Saarbrucken has a strong focus on the classical modern works, but there is also an extension with contemporary works. That part of the collection is not as big as I wanted it to be, so this was a chance for us. Some of the modern works have gone to Luxembourg and we’ve replaced them with contemporary pieces that correspond with our permanent collection. When I set up my wish list I hadn’t even dreamed of getting half of it, but Marie-Noëlle agreed. The dialogue also opened a lot of possibilities to use our architecture in a different way. People who know our art will see it with a fresh perspective, in a different context.

How do you approach an exhibition of two collections in two different museums?

MNF: Our title is ‘museum of modern art’, but we don’t have any modern art, so this exhibition gives us a chance to present some modern pieces. The starting point was to create an analogy between the artworks, to really mix, not to have modern art on one side and contemporary on the other. Hopefully the visitor will not necessarily be able to distinguish one period from the other – at least not at first glance. We strove to have a kind of free parcour within the galleries. The approach was at times visual, at times conceptual, bearing in mind that the historical context is different. The history of modern art can be written, even if our perspective on it may have shifted. There is a chronology, we can identify landmark pieces and important movements. Contemporary art does not allow for this kind of reading. We want to allow the visitor to see what the avant-garde in the early 20th century was like. It’s also a way to sensitize the viewer to a longer history than the one we usually exhibit in our museum.

Generally, exhibitions covering different epochs and dialogues between collections have become more common. Still: Was it difficult to find a common thread between artists like, let’s say, Giorgio de Chririco and Kathia St. Hilaire?

MNF: At Mudam we defined two different approaches. One focuses on matter, la matière, and how that is defined by the artist: the visual perception of the space, what it means in terms of developing shapes into the museal space. The other one is the presence of the body. That in turn can be seen as the relation between the artist and the model, it can be seen as a movement within space, it can be thought of as the body in a difficult moment in history. It’s a very open theme and within the gallery we tried to keep the scenography as open as possible, in order to make as many links as possible. De Chirico is paired with a painting by Helmut Federle about the inner perception of time. The visitor can and should make connections that are not meant by the curators.

What do you hope to achieve by putting the collections in dialogue?

AJ: In Saarbrucken you would usually enter the space with an impression of an Otto Piene painting. That has gone to Luxembourg and we’ve replaced it with a big work by Blinky Palermo. We pick up the aesthetic, but also try to create interventions in the way the works are usually displayed. We want to open people’s minds, challenge their perceptions and ideas. They may know the Picasso and Braque pieces, but then those are interfered with through a self-portrait by Tania Bruguera. I think that really brings new impulses to the normal presentation of the show. It will make people realize that there are other things going on, that the classical works already have a strong connection to what is being produced in the art world now. Pieces that are a hundred years old echo the way we feel and experience the world in 2022. I focused on relationships as a theme: We have a working relationship between Luxembourg and Saarbrucken, we transgress borders, and these days we transgress ideas of the world. The collection in Luxembourg then proved to be about relationship in so many ways. They can be loving and very rewarding, but also destructive, toxic and war-like. Art has always dealt with this contrast. Overall, I am still working on the fact that people here develop a more international idea about art. After all, we are not in Berlin or Munich. So including non-European artists like Mitra Tabrizian or Duncan Wylie is important to me.

In that way, you bring periods closer together...

MNF: The technique and the medium are of course different. If you look at the history of art after the second world war, artistic experimentation really expands. It went further and further in the 60s and 70s. The artist started to challenge the definition of what it means to be an artist. Writing and poetry entered the arts, the moving image as well. Contemporary art opens the field of what art can actually be. As a curator the relation to space is totally different. Jean Bechameil is a perfect example of how a person can be inside an art piece – literally immersed.

AJ: I would go as far as saying that there are not that many differences between the periods. Maybe museums did not collect a lot of these things because they were more elusive, they were almost like theatre, performative in their nature. It’s not a coincidence that contemporary artists refer to that. If we look at more classical media like paintings, we discover that they inspire the current practices and performances. In the juxtaposition of classical, modern and contemporary we are able to show that they are very close. They follow similar threads, it’s not so easy to define the difference. Some people have prejudice and only look at art by people they already know. They feel like they may not understand something new. But it really is an opportunity.

From surrealism to constructivism, Face-à-face is characterized by a vast selection of different artistic movements. In what concrete ways do the pieces teach us about the challenges of today?

AJ: The time of the constructivists like Picasso and Braque was really hard. Artists suffered a lot, they didn’t know how to pay their rent or produce their artworks at all. Otto Dix and the artists working during the wars also faced these challenges. It’s not a new idea that some art only comes out under these circumstances. When people are not happy, when they have to find solutions for existing in society. We’ve never solved the fact that we don’t get along with each other most of the time. Now we’ve lived through 70 years of peace in Western Europe. That’s a very short time span looking at all of human history. It’s a miracle that the West is only faced with war now. Interestingly, art from tumultuous times is often humorous and hopeful.

In the program, you speak of the spiritual dimensions of art. Can it fill a spiritual void for modern man, mostly bereft of institutionalized religion?

MNF: I don’t know if it fills a spiritual gap, but it definitely opens up another world. It asks us how we interact with the world. This relationship can be understood at various levels, for some it’s spiritual, for some it’s a pleasurable experience only, it depends on who’s looking. But it triggers your curiosity and your need to understand – and the notion of alterity. So I would define it wider than a vehicle for spirituality. And it can of course satisfy a purely intellectual curiosity.

The results of a recent study by the Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research on museum attendance were unsurprising. Higher social strata make up most of the people visiting, and the lack of habit in childhood determines this. How can art institutions contribute to more social inclusion?

AJ: You have to work with schools and the educational system, it’s hard to find individuals. We just started a program last year focusing on young people between 12 and 18 from a lower socio-economic background. Because it’s true that if you don’t have this kind of input as a child, you rarely develop it further. It’s beautiful to see how these kids transform. At first they are staring at their phones and gaming, but by the end of the workshops they don’t want to leave the museum. A museum should be a place where everyone feels at home. Everything else comes after that.

Sarah Pepin
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