Unlike the Tuileries Garden, the High Museum’s exhibition about this Paris landmark is both all over the place and nowhere at all.
“The Art of the Louvre’s Tuileries Garden” encompasses the evolution of its design, its place in France’s social and political history, its role as an outdoor museum and as subject for artists. It brings together architectural models, sculptures, drawings, photographs and paintings, artifacts, a three-screen video and a tapestry. But it doesn’t add up to a substantive exhibit.
In trying to tell so many stories, the exhibition doesn’t really conjure any of them well. Perhaps the curators tried to do too much with too little. The galleries seem oddly bare and bland. The fact that an entire gallery is devoted to a pleasant but not illuminating video is telling.
The fault also lies in the way the story is told. For example, a few frogs by potter/garden designer Bernard Palissy and shards of decorative motifs, among the remains of the original 16th-century design of the Tuileries, are presented with no context. They aren’t particularly absorbing by themselves, and in this vacuum they do little to evoke the character of the garden at that time. Similarly, a bust of Napoleon doesn’t relay anything about his role in the garden’s history.
You almost need preexisting knowledge of the themes in order to discern them. One of the fascinating subtexts is the relationship between politics and public space. Paralleling France’s (r)evolution from monarchy to republic, what started as a private royal garden was gradually turned over to the people, and it eventually became a locus of the community — a place for children to play, trysts, special events and demonstrations. This space, as a wall text mentions, helped define the notion of “the public.” The clues are there, but had I not just heard lectures on the subject, I doubt I would have sussed it out.
When an art exhibit doesn’t convey its thesis, or in this case, doesn’t really have one, visitors can still enjoy the artworks. The two bronze sculptures by Aristide Maillol, which are installed on Sifly Piazza in a Tuilerie-esque setting, are among my faves. It’s a pleasure to see these life-size figures — curvacious, fleshy nudes, whose skin bears the patina of age — in the modernist plaza.
“Hercules Battling Achelous as Serpent,” a grand and powerful 19th-century sculpture by François Joseph Bosio (cast by Auguste Jean-Marie Carbonneaux), stands just inside the entrance. Stands doesn’t do it justice. The composition of interlocking forms is almost kinetic in its energy, both parties poised to strike.
Not surprisingly, the selection of photographs, taken between the 1850s and 1980, capture the character and history of the Tuileries most successfully. Eugene Atget’s photos of the sculptures in the garden help to contextualize the weathered pieces displayed in the lobby with Hercules. Henri Cartier-Bresson and Michael Kenna focus on the geometric order imposed by allées, walls and pathways. But the photographs offer more than description. Robert Doisneau finds a metaphor for the anxiety of approaching war in an image of a trench in which the French stored sculptures in advance of World War II: hunkered as if in a foxhole, one of the sculptures looks eerily alive, eyes upward, scanning the sky for danger.
One gallery is devoted to painters’ responses to the garden. In several paintings, Impressionist Camille Pissarro uses the view to explore the changing seasons à la Monet’s haystacks. Oskar Kokoscka riffs on the landscape, turning it into a quivering mass of colors and lines in his expressionist near-abstraction.
Unfortunately, many of the objects on view are not art-museum quality. It is common for history museums to display objects chosen more to illustrate a point than for their inherent quality. But here? (A number of them, in fact, belong to the Musée Carnavalet, devoted to the history of Paris, which it should be noted also lent some very good pictures.)
Blending art, social history and politics is challenging but not impossible. The High succeeds in the concurrent “Go West” in the Wieland Pavilion. “Tuileries,” alas, is more in the mold of the 2012 debacle “The Art of Golf.” Mentioning “Louvre” in the title may draw visitors, but exhibitions like this won’t bring them back. (Through January 19, 2014.)
Ryan Gravel, the father of the Atlanta BeltLine, will speak at 7 p.m. December 12 on “Public Space, Civic Identity and the Cultivation of a New Atlanta.”