‘La Datcha’ by Gilles Aillaud and others
‘La Datcha’ (1969) by Gilles Aillaud and others

Can France’s most flam­boyant philosopher save France’s most celebrated modern art museum? In any other country, such an experiment would never even be tested – which is reason enough to visit Les aventures de la vérité – Peinture et philosophie: un récit, this summer’s startling, original show at the Fondation Maeght, for which the philosopher, writer and journalist Bernard-Henri Lévy takes on a new role as curator.

The Fondation, inaugurated in 1964 by dealer Aimé Maeght in the pine-clad hills of Saint-Paul-de-Vence above Nice and featuring a Braque pool, a Giacometti courtyard and a Miró labyrinth, has long been a temple to modern art. Still family-run, it has recently lost verve: Maeght’s grandchildren have publicly fallen out, exhibitions have been weak. In the 21st century, as modernism becomes historic, it is seeking a sexier image.

Enter “BHL”, celebrity intellectual, often mocked for his vanity with epithets such as “God is dead but my hair is perfect” but impeccably connected in the art world (collector François Pinault is a close friend). BHL has flooded the Maeght with contemporary work: Subodh Gupta’s hideous monumental bronze Mona Lisa “Et tu, Duchamp?” among the delicate Giacomettis; a new version of “Hell” modelled by the Chapman brothers, “Upstairs and Downstairs” (2013), opposite a shimmering, earnest Rothko; Huang Yong Ping’s vast resin grotto “Plato’s Cave” (2009) and a Grayson Perry pot boxing in the lilting abstracted forms of Miró’s painting “Les Philosophes”.

BHL ridicules not only the pieties of art history but also philosophy’s pretensions. A star piece is “La Datcha”, a painting depicting a twilit 1960s interior, complete with an ethnologist’s trophy primitive mask, where a quintet of poseurs retreat from the world; it is inscribed “Louis Althusser hésitant à entrer dans la datcha tristes miels de Claude Levi-Strauss où sont réunis Jacques Lacan Michel Foucault et Roland Barthes au moment où la radio annonce que les ouvriers et les étudiants ont décidé d’abandonner joyeusement leur passé.” The philosophes on the fence, occupied with their own smug mental games while the 1968 protests rage among students and workers, are a perfect target for BHL, who has always been fiercely politically engaged.

‘Les libraires aveugles' by Gérard Garouste
‘Les libraires aveugles’ (2005) by Gérard Garouste © Centre National des arts plastiques

“La Datcha”, painted collaboratively by five obscure artist-satirists in something close to Soviet Realist style, achieved brief notoriety when first exhibited in 1969, then disappeared. BHL searched and found it; it is among many laugh-out-loud works with which he explores how painting and philosophy, enemies since Plato banned art from his ideal Republic, confront and react against one another. Magritte’s “Les vacances de Hegel” (a glass of water balancing on an umbrella, 1958); Delvaux’s portrait of a conference of skeletons in a library “Waiting for the Liberation” (1944) facing Thomas Schütte’s multicoloured silicone heads on spiral wires “Efficiency Men” (2005); and Gérard Garouste’s three-metre canvas “Les libraires aveugles” (2005) where a pair of blind men follow a donkey loaded with books, all embody the playful spirit of BHL’s venture.

‘Les vacances de Hegel’ by René Magritte
‘Les vacances de Hegel’ (1959) by René Magritte © Mr and Mrs Wilbur Ross Collection

There is a serious undercurrent, though. Painting, BHL asserts, was a fugitive art from the start. Pierre Tal-Coat’s lovely depiction of a hazy blue silhouette of a figure running against a golden ground, “Le Saut” (1955-56), suggestive of primitive cave painting, alludes to the legendary beginning of representation when a girl traced the shadow of her departing lover.

Religion as well as philosophy always suspected art’s ability to move, persuade, defy absence, aim for immortality. In Christian tradition, St Veronica – true icon – legitimised the image by receiving the mark of Christ’s face on her veil: thus depictions of the saint here from an anonymous 15th-century Flemish panel via Murillo and Picabia to a stunning abbreviated icon by Russian expressionist Alexej von Jawlensky.

For centuries, according to BHL’s eclectic account, painting triumphed: the great stories of Christianity, the investigations of humanism, were communicated through images. The loan of Lucas Cranach’s “Adam and Eve” (1526), a panel that inspired philosopher Georges Bataille, is a coup here; there are anatomical studies by Tiepolo and Rubens, a Picasso “Torso de Femme” and Warhol’s “Jackie”, 17th-century vanitas paintings and Yan Pei-Ming’s beautiful grisaille bunch of flowers growing out of a skull, “Bouquet de fleurs pour les morts” (2013) – together declaring the power of iconography across eras, continents and cultures.

‘Sainte Véronique’ by Pierre et Gilles
‘Sainte Véronique’ (2013) by Pierre et Gilles

Two Old Masters, Cosmè Tura’s lurid shrivelled “Pieta” (1460) from Venice’s Museo Correr, and a stark, glassy “Crucifixion” (1540) by Bronzino, set against a rare early Jackson Pollock “Crucifixion” (1939-40) and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s graffiti cross “Crisis X” (1982), both looked so hyper-real and contemporary that I had to check the captions to ascertain that they were not in fact pastiches or fakes.

BHL is directing us, presumably, back to Plato: we cannot know reality, only its reflection in the fire of the cave. Can we tell truth from fiction, fact from representation? Art freed itself from that debate in the 19th century: a Manet canvas, argued Bataille, refuses “any value irrelevant to painting”; it refers only to itself.

Abstraction inevitably followed: Kandinsky gouaches, Ellsworth Kelly’s “Red, yellow, blue”, Frank Stella’s “Silverstone”, Franz Kline’s “Bethlehem” are among examples here of how art “totally affirms itself like pure presence”. A step further is conceptualism: according to Joseph Kosuth in his 1969 manifesto “Art after Philosophy”, philosophical systems of knowledge are finished, and the vacant place is occupied by the artist, beginning where philosophy “left off” – with, say, Kosuth’s neon text sculptures “Words are deeds” and “Here is an example”.

‘Crisis X’ by Jean-Michel Basquiat
‘Crisis X’ (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat

But if conceptual art is illustrated thinking, painting has triumphed only to be defeated – by accepting philosophy’s terms. It is at this point that Les aventures de la vérité loses momentum. A strong conclusion to a show interweaving philosophy and painting would have to include Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” or “Large Glass”, Damien Hirst’s shark “The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”, and a conceptual/historical painting of the stature of Luc Tuymans’ vanishing “Still Life” on a huge white canvas commemorating 9/11.

The Maeght, though, is small, French-orientated, unable to garner such pieces. Instead BHL offers an anything-goes, end-of-history denouement – a pair of doors by Daniel Buren; Valerio Adami’s post-pop “Portrait de Jacques Derrida”; Jean-Michel Alberola’s bronze of a horse’s behind called “La Joconde”; Jacques Martinez’s installation of a crashed car against a solid pillar of white books, “Triomphe de la philosophie”.

This is conceptual art at its most crassly obvious, with every piece in this final room blown away by two simple portrait drawings, Matisse’s “Bénédiction à Baudelaire” and Giacometti’s “Heraclitus” – which lead us straight back into Maeght territory (both drawings are owned by the family).

It is an ambivalent coda to the most provocative, refreshing show that I have seen for many years in a south of France generally still in thrall to classic modernism.

‘Les aventures de la vérité’, Fondation Maeght, Saint-Paul-de-Vence, to November 11. www.fondation-maeght.com

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