French connection

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French connection
By Shiva Kumar Thekkepat, Staff Writer GULF NEWS Published: February 15, 2008, 00:30

The UAE is fast becoming a major player on the international art scene. Next month, the first French Art Festival – featuring the works of 35 artists, including five from the UAE – is scheduled to take place in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Think art and one of the first images that springs to mind is of France. This nation was home to some of the most prolific artists in the world.

After the Second World War, many in the field argued that the US had taken over from France to become the centre of the art world. However, in the past decade or so, Europe, primarily Britain and France, has been edging ahead of the US. Now, if the French interest in the Middle East, as shown by the high profile French Art Festival set to take off in Dubai and Abu Dhabi next month, is anything to go by, a fourth market is likely to emerge on the international art scene – the UAE.

The First French Art Festival will see the exhibition and sale of 400 works of art produced by 30 French artists. Also taking pride of place in this festival will be five artists from the UAE who are to be the guests of honour at the festival. Hosted by the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation, the event will showcase some of the finest works of art including paintings, sculptures and photographs.

“It all started with Francoise Malafosse’s passion for art, contemporary art in particular, and creation,” says Odile Duron, French Art Festival project manager.

“Through the French design and communication company she started with her husband, Michel, Francoise (who is the French Art Festival manager and a passionate art lover). met a large number of artists, most of whom became her friends over the past 15 years. Francoise always had the desire to bring their talents together through a major art exhibition. Out of 120 she chose 30, and she wanted to showcase their talents and that is how the festival came about. The French Art Festival in the UAE offered her just that opportunity.”

Francoise is all set to realise her dream thanks to Odile Duron who, along with her team, has been working for over a year enlisting the support of the concerned authorities in the UAE.

“It is about promoting art, French contemporary art and French artists helping them to export their works of art which is usually difficult to do especially if they are independent and don’t work with established galleries. The French Art Festival is a great opportunity (for them),” says Odile.

Patrice Paoli, French Ambassador to the UAE, and Dominique Baudis, president of the Arab World Institute in Paris, are expected to attend the opening of the event.

During the opening night, one of the French painters, Robert
Di Credico, will paint live on stage and his painting will then be auctioned with the proceeds going to the Emirates Foundation. Around 5,000 people have been invited and 2,000 more visitors are expected over the three days, according to Odile. A special evening will be reserved for women.

Based on the initial selection made by Francoise, over 700 works of art by the 30 select French artists have been put together to form a panel that is representative of the best of contemporary art in France.

“Many French artists don’t work with galleries as they want to be independent and we too prefer it that way as we want to preserve their identity and not impose anything on (their creativity),” explains Odile. “Francoise and the artists chose the works of art that are to be exhibited together, and nothing was imposed on them in terms of technique or anything.”

The main idea behind the selection was to make sure that they would not compete with each other. Also the organisers wanted to provide a wide range of what contemporary French art is. Francoise did not choose one trend in particular. On the contrary, she wanted to be as objective as possible, to give as broad a spectrum as possible to meet the expectations of the public, says Odile.

According to her, the talent that will be on exhibit is incontrovertible. “There is Robert Di Credico who is going to paint live on stage at the opening ceremony and that work will be auctioned, with the proceeds going to the Emirates Foundation,” she says. “He’s done that before, he’s very good at it. There’s also Christine Barres. She uses very bright colours. It reflects her personality. She’s very enthusiastic, very optimistic. She’s going to conduct workshops at the Cultural Foundation and wants to share her passion for art with all art lovers.

“There is also Pascal Magis, he’s already quite famous in France. Then there’s Jean-Louis Toutain, a sculptor, whose works can be seen in many public places in France. All of them are quite unique in their own way.”

Apart from the French talent, five local contemporary artists – Manal Bin Amro, Nuha Hassan Asad, Mohammad Kanoo, Mohammad Mandi and Wasel Safwan Antepli – will provide local input with their works complementing those of their French colleagues.

Though French art has dominated the art scene globally for centuries spawning many influential schools, it has not been setting any discernible trends in recent times.

Francoise, a serious student of French contemporary art, says: “I don’t think there is a particular trend, or maybe it’s too early to say.

“I would refer instead to a new momentum in various fields: there are interesting creations in ‘classic’ fine arts (painting, sculpture, music, couture, etc.) as well as in more innovative areas: photography, design, cuisine, video art, etc. There is a profusion of talent and inventiveness. For French artists, the challenge is to take on board – and release themselves from – extremely strong traditions. For years, France has reigned supreme as the country of the arts: both an opportunity and a responsibility.”

Does this mean that French art is in a good state of health at present?

“You have to distinguish between the creation and the market,” says Francoise.

“In terms of creation, I would emphasise that the talent is out there. And the people we are introducing with the French Art Festival prove my point. Through the 30 artists selected, we present a sort of representative shot of what is being done in France today.

“In terms of the market, or rather of market share, it cannot be denied that France follows the United States, Great Britain and, now, China. But artistic quality is not measured just by millions of dollars … at least I hope not,” she says.

The French government had announced a Euro 100-million project to support French artists and increase the contemporary art market some time back. Has this succeeded in reviving the art market in France?

“I don’t know the details of this project,” says Francoise. “But I do know that in March, Martin Béthenod, general commissioner of the International Contemporary Art Fair, is to submit his report to ease the administrative burdens facing professionals and to encourage collectors. That will involve relaxation of regulations in France and harmonisation on a European level. Last autumn, Christine Albanel, Minister for Culture, promised to launch a revival plan to boost the art market. And at the end of January, the Council of Ministers adopted a bill to make art and cultural education generally available from the earliest age. Finally, a new structure, linked to the Pompidou Centre, will be created in the vacant premises of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris.”

While it appears that the French government has many mechanisms for supporting contemporary art and artists, there has been some criticism of this sort of State sponsorship. Francoise, however, feels this move is justified.

“Most countries promote their art and support their artists by placing orders, allocating grants, providing premises, facilitating exports, etc,” she says. “France has a tradition and knowledge in this field, whether at a national level or at a regional level through DRACs – the regional offices for the arts. Local councils are also playing an increasingly important part in the distribution of the arts and culture.

“There are always critics on either side: some believe that public authorities do not do enough, others believe that they are getting involved in a field which is not their own. You have to find the right balance between public and private, while keeping in mind that, in the end, it is always the public who decides.”

And then she delivers the coup de grace: ” I have two things to say about the effectiveness of this policy: first, the share of living artists in the art market is continuing to rise; second, 83 per cent of works changing hands around the world in 2005 were worth less than $10,000. So it is not only past geniuses who are finding buyers!”

Francoise does not entirely agree that after ten centuries of hegemony, there was a certain decline in the influence of French art following the Second World War. “I would not call it a decline in French art but increased strength in other countries, which is perfectly normal,” she says.

“It was natural that the dominant power of the United States since 1945 should also manifest itself in the arts. Similarly, it is natural that China, which represents nearly a quarter of humanity, should take its own prominent place.

“Countries such as France, England and Italy, for example, have made similar journeys. But I do recall that, in 2005, of the 10 bestselling artists in the world, four were French – Claude Monet, Marc Chagall (originally from Belarus), Fernand Léger and Jean-Michel Basquiat. [Also], the number one, Pablo Picasso, spent a large part of his life in France!”

But according to experts, during the past decade Europe appears to have caught up somewhat with the United States. Does this denote a resumption of contemporary art in France?

“Following the explosion of the speculative bull market in 1990, the art market experienced several years of recession, followed by an upturn in recent years, linked primarily with an increase in the number of buyers,” explains Francoise. “This can be explained by the emergence of new markets (such as China, India and Russia) and by increased accessibility to works, thanks to all the tools in place especially on the internet.

“France continues to be an inexhaustible crucible for works of art: the country’s museums contain unrivalled riches, its collectors are innumerable and the institutions, such as the Drouot auction house, the house of François Pinault and Fondation Cartier, play a major role in artistic exchange today. And, again, we are not just talking about classic works: the 20th century was exceptionally rich [in modern works of art] in France, and there is no reason for that to stop in the 21st century.”

There are three essential markets for art: France, Great Britain and the United States. Does this exhibition represent a high level of interest in French art in the Middle East?

“Yes, I believe these new ‘stages’ are important,” says Francoise. “Not just because these are markets, but also because these are places where art has always been present. What motivates me more than anything is artistic exchange, the meeting of people and works from different traditions. Nothing is more interesting.”

Perhaps the reason why both Francoise and Odile are looking beyond the festival already. “The spin-offs of such an event are innumerable and not all of them are quantifiable,” say Odile. How can one measure the pleasure provided, the desires aroused, the relationships it leads to …, she asks.

“There will, of course, be economic spin-offs, for the artists who open up to new markets, and for the companies taking part in this festival in different ways,” she continues.

“But there will also be spin-offs in terms of knowledge and recognition: what an opportunity for an artist to be able to present his or her work on such a prestigious scene and to an audience as cosmopolitan as that of the UAE! It offers tremendous encouragement to these new talents to continue and make further progress in their artistic expression!

“There will also be other benefits in terms of openness of mind, the discovery of new forms of expression and respect for cultures. The festival’s noble ambition is to bring individuals together through their shared interest in contemporary art.”

According to the organisers of the festival, the art event will be “renewed and amplified every year because contemporary art is by definition constantly evolving and because, alongside the visual arts, other arts such as literature, theatre, cinema, music and even gastronomy can find their place and their audience.”

Ultimately, Francoise feels the Middle East, and the East in general, will be significant markets for international art.

“The UAE considers culture to be a factor of development. That is wonderful and we were lucky that our proposal was consistent with this outlook,” she says.

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