Signs of the Times: Why Are Contemporary Art Dealers Looking to Fin-de-Siècle France?

Over the past year, a remarkable number of exhibitions at contemporary art galleries have paired new art with fin-de-siècle French painting. Among them were Algus Greenspon’s wonderfully eccentric hang of Odilon Redon and Dan Colen, Julia Margaret Cameron and Kai Altoff in “Invitation to the Voyage” last fall, Andrew Kreps’s smart take on Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard in January’s “Interiors,” the kitschy, Playboy-sponsored “Giverny” by E.V. Day and Kembra Pfahler at the Hole, and “À Rebours,” the Symbolist-macho premiere of Observer contributor Adam Lindemann’s new Venus on Manhattan gallery.

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The Paris of 1895 to 1905 seems an unlikely era to obsess the always au courant New York art vanguard of 2012. Why so much interest in contemporary circles in what has been, up to now, a particularly unhip era?

Malcom Gladwell-like theories of cyclical trends aside, the trend’s ascendency, I suspect, speaks to a growing discontent with the limited aesthetic positions available in New York at the moment. Andy Warhol and infinite post-Warhol imitators have set the dialogue in galleries here for the past decade. A number of these positions came inherited from Marcel Duchamp, currently the patriarch of rampant Lower East Side hipster Neo-Minimalism. A change of some sort was perhaps long overdue.

These fin-de-siècle French figures may feel so fresh because their aesthetic interests come from an age before Duchamp and Warhol set the stage for art-making. By explicitly aligning themselves with the “fuck you” decadence exemplified by J. K. Huysmans’s early novels (in Mr. Lindemann’s case), the interest in decorative interiors (Kreps), or radical dandyism (Algus Greenspon), these recent shows are opening up ways outside of Warhol’s commercial cool and Duchamp’s anti-art object. They let us fall in love with small paintings, muddy palettes, bravado position-taking, aristocratic nerdiness, failed aesthetes and most of all, they let us feel weird again, as if we don’t quite know what we’re going to see when we leave the house. (Those descriptions could apply to much of the art in this year’s Whitney Biennial.)

As with the best resurrections, there’s not much scholarship going into these slapdash approximations. They’re all about dealers going with their guts, arranging quirky consignments and spelling out their plans in freeform press releases. Yet just as Claude Monet tried to recreate Japanese gardens, despite never having seen them in person, and came up with the entirely French Giverny, a new and wonderful environment, it was fascinating to see Lower East Side denizens at the Hole reimagining Monet’s gardens in their own image and coming up with something equally new, off and odd. Let’s see where this new taste for old art takes us: after all Duchamp said his favorite artist was Redon.

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