Zhanar will come up with clever text or Karina... Definitely not Darina

exhibition
SIMPLE
SHAPES
Jean de Loisy

is a president of the Palais de Tokyo, which is the main site for contemporary art in Paris, in the past he was a curator of the Centre Pompidou and Cartier Foundation, now presenting to the public two new exhibitions this year: «Simple Shapes» (on view through January 5, 2014 at the Centre Pompidou-Metz), and of «Simple Gestures» (on view through March 1, 2014 at La Grande Place Musée du cristal Saint-Louis). Etage team talked with Mr. de Loisy about these projects, favorite artists and the idea of the ideal form of art.

Jean de Loisy
— Could you elaborate on the meaning of the title of Simple Shapes, how did the idea for the exhibition evolve?
— The idea for Simple Shapes came to me while I was looking at Matisse's drawing of a head, a portrait of St. Dominic. The head is conceived as a loop of ink, drawn in a single gesture; the eyes are not represented, nor the mouth, nor the eyebrows, it's just an oval. But the saint's personality, his intense presence, and the power of his aura were all there in that extremely simple form. It shows how signs that fascinate us and have great power, can be expressed with utmost economy.

— What is a simple shape to you?
— Certain shapes give the impression they have an inner energy. They go beyond their geometric definition without losing their unity. The simple shape is determined by the artist's arbitrary choices and by the rules of physics. It is always caught between the two, and this tension is central to the exhibition.

— What inspired you for this exhibition? Was there a particular piece of artwork, an object, an exhibition, a conversation or a text?
— There's a magnificent text written in the 1930's by Henri Focillon that talks about forms that seem to "grow". In other words, they are not final reports of something that exists, but a moment of stasis in an evolving process. When I read that, I felt that perhaps all forms have an inherent, dynamic life and that only our different temporal consciousness prevents us from seeing their evolution.
"THERE IS AN ATTENTION TO SHAPE WHICH ALL CULTURES SHARE, BECAUSE WORKS WHICH HAVE SIMPLE SHAPES APPEAL DIRECTLY TO THE COLLECTIVE SENSIBILITY, EVEN IF THEIR PARTICULAR THEORETICAL OR HISTORICAL BACKGROUND CAN BE COMPLEX"

Jean Arp, Bourgeon, 1935
"THERE IS AN ATTENTION TO SHAPE WHICH ALL CULTURES SHARE, BECAUSE WORKS WHICH HAVE SIMPLE SHAPES APPEAL DIRECTLY TO THE COLLECTIVE SENSIBILITY, EVEN IF THEIR PARTICULAR THEORETICAL OR HISTORICAL BACKGROUND CAN BE COMPLEX"

Jean Arp, Bourgeon, 1935
"THE DRAWINGS SHOW HOW PICASSO PROGRESSIVELY SIMPLIFIED A SILHOUETTE OF A BULL, IN SEVEN STAGES, UNTIL IT BECAME A SIMPLE FORM"
— Could you describe the process of curating the exhibition, how do you selected the artists and works?
— "Writing" an exhibition is like writing a sentence. You need to find works that follow on from one another, developing an argument as the visitor moves around the space, prompting fertile, imaginative associations.

One example might be the case of engineer Étienne-Jules Marey in the field of aerodynamics, circa 1900's. His work gave rise to new forms, such as propellers. And these forms fascinated the artists of the day because suddenly, a beautiful object seemed to have been made without the stamp of its creator's personality, with no expressive input from anyone.

And so, there's a connection between the work of Brancusi, one of
his collaborators (by the name of Béothy), and one of his admirers, Barbara Hepworth, and their collective dialogue with an early 20th-century propeller, which is itself shaped by the same timeless principles as a Melanesian boomerang. These principles find pragmatic expression in the form of the boomerang, poetic expression in Brancusi's Bird in Space, and technical expression in Marey's propellers, or the turbine blades of nuclear reactors today. We must make these connections, to see how simple forms are made not by man, but by nature.

— What is the historical context for this exhibition? Where do all these shapes come from?
— The historical context is the 19th century's rediscovery of simple forms, which had been absent from Western art for over two thousand years. The beauty of a Cycladic idol, for example, reminds us that shapes as simple as these were non-existent in art for almost three thousand years. Modern artists only began to take an interest in such things in the late 19th century, influenced by the work of engineers, advances in geology and biology, the discovery of new areas of mathematics, or archaeological excavations revealing the utterly simple forms of Cycladic art, or the art of Veracruz in Central America. Artists began to copy and take inspiration from these shapes, using them to create technical, architectural or sculptural objects.

A few months ago, staff at Apple revealed how Steve Jobs set about organising seminar retreats. They showed a series of drawings by Picasso, which Jobs used at the seminars. The drawings show how Picasso progressively simplified a silhouette of a bull, in seven stages, until it became a simple form. Then Jobs would tell his colleagues: this simplification should be your model for the technical and ergonomic concept of the object you're designing. So, we see that simple shapes are still central to technical, industrial and organic design today. It's very interesting to see how the most advanced companies are still engaged in the quest for formal simplicity.
— Is there a universal quality to the exhibition?
— The utopia which underpinned the invention of the simple shape, in the 1910's and 1920's, developed as part of the hypothesis that a universal modernity did exist. This will be very much in evidence in the exhibition: every culture is mentioned at some point or other, not because we want to give an exhaustive view, but because a Japanese bowl, an Egyptian vase, an Iranian shape or a Syrian idol will feature in the same way as a modern work. There is an attention to shape which all cultures share, because works which have simple shapes appeal directly to the collective sensibility, even if their particular theoretical or historical background can be complex. Brancusi's Bird in Space is an example. Such a shape had never been seen before, yet it feels incredibly familiar. We aren't surprised by what we see and still we cannot take our eyes off it. We can say the same of the moon or the sea: these are shapes that hold our gaze.

'Head of a female figurine from Keros', Greece, ancient Cycladic II (2700-2300 B.C.), Syros Group
"THE SIMPLE SHAPE IS DETERMINED BY THE ARTIST'S ARBITRARY CHOICES AND BY THE RULES OF PHYSICS"
'Unendliche Schleife' Version IV, Max Bill (1960-1961)
— How are the two exhibitions Simple Shapes and Simple Gestures connected?
— The two exhibitions share a common approach to human history. One shows how simple shapes both fascinate and predate mankind, and how they have evolved along with mankind subsequently.

The other shows how the simplest gestures — which are also the most ancient, performed by man for over 100,000 years — can create form. The point here is to study how the gestures we have invented are capable of reinventing us in turn, and how we, humans, have defined ourselves through the tools we make, from a needle to a flint-stone smoothed in the hand until it becomes an axe. The simplest tools are invariably the most decisive way-markers in the evolution of human techniques and technology.

The cultural history of humanity is the history of the invention of a specific set of gestures that have enabled us to build and organise society as we know it, and to guarantee the continued manufacture and transmission of the things we need in everyday human life. These simple gestures are the foundation of our culture; without them, we cannot go on. What we have tried to collect together and present here are man-made gestures, every day and accomplished gestures, gestures made (quite by chance) by plants, quasi-mechanical gestures that have developed without even thinking, even 'industrial' gestures that have been patented, as if it were actually possible to patent something pertaining to a living organism. In one instance, we see how simple gestures have structured and shaped our society. In the other, how simple shapes can express and synthetize the 'state of the art' (or the state of culture) at any given moment.

— Some of the artworks in Simple Shapes are made of everyday objects; does this mean that anything and everything can be art these days?
— Simple Gestures and Simple Shapes aren't trying to prove that anything can be art, but that many ordinary things can be beautiful, and that the act of making or doing can be just as beautiful as the act of looking. The collector of pebbles on a beach, or a nature-lover compiling a herbarium, or an artist, or a person decorating a propeller, can achieve striking beauty: the beauty inherent in movement (in the case of Simple Gestures) or the beauty of natural occurrence (as in Simple Shapes).

— Is Simple Shapes about aesthetics? Can you talk a little more about this?
— It's an exhibition exploring a rather mysterious aesthetic, because for a shape to be truly simple it must also be 'silent', devoid of any ideology, conveying no message, and it should be the product either of a context in which its human maker takes a step back, eschewing any form of psychological self-expression, any biographical, narrative, egotistical or narcissistic intent (as in the work of Brancusi or Kapoor), or a product of nature, singled out by the human eye. And so, this is an exhibition about the history of aesthetics, and the history of a particular fascination. The history of our human 'eye'.

'Abajour', Man Ray (1919-1954)
— Is the concept of beauty part of the exhibition equation?
— In this instance we're looking at a very particular, calm beauty; one that appears as obvious to us as a piece of fruit. More than beauty, I prefer the theme of fascination in the sense that we should be moved by something which seems devoid of complexity. The simple shape affects us with an evident modesty: the artist's ego is absent. Of course we recognise an Arp, but were we to place it next to a Brancusi and an archaic Greek sculpture, the difference would be hard to spot. This is why the foremost artists have approached the simple shape knowing they must relinquish a part of their personality.
— What is a perfect shape for you?
— A shape where nothing is lacking. What's so fascinating about simple shapes, is their pared-down appearance — everything seems to have been taken away, and yet they are replete. Also, any shape that is perfectly adapted to its function.

— What do you hope to convey to the public with this project?
— I want the public to think about why they are fascinated by these shapes. There is something that is beyond intellectual comprehension, something which can only be grasped intuitively. The exhibition stages a conversation between artists up to twenty thousand years apart. What matters is to show how, using different techniques, they continue to ask themselves the same fundamental questions about man's presence among matter, the universe and nature, and that they can answer these questions with different shapes.
Interview: Étage Magazine
Date: November, 2016