Didier Ottinger doesn’t fit the stereotype of the stodgy art historian one might associate with a man who’s the deputy director and chief curator of Paris’ Centre Georges Pompidou.
With droves of reporters and photographers waiting outside the Taipei Fine Art Museum’s (TFAM) VIP room where I interviewed him, Ottinger arrived dressed in a casual navy blue suit. Speaking fluent English with a thick French accent, he is an expansive interlocutor, delivering anecdotes and theories about modern art without using the jargon beloved of most curators.
Ottinger was in Taipei this month to organize and open Arcadie, a joint exhibit by the Pompidou Center and the TFAM that features works by major modernist artists such as Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, Georges Braques and Henri Matisse.
Arcadie (Arcadia) is on display at TFAM, galleries 1A and 1B. The museum is located at 181, Zhongshan N Rd Sec 3, Taipei City (台北市中山北路三段181號) until July 12. The museum is open Tuesdays to Sundays from 9:30am to 5:30pm, with extended hours on Saturdays until 8:30pm. Admission is NT$250. For more information call (02) 2595-7656. For more information, go to www.tfam.museum.
Taipei Times: You originally developed the idea for Arcadie after the Seoul Museum of Art invited you to create an exhibit of modern art based on the Pompidou’s permanent collection.
Didier Ottinger: Yes, they asked us to make a show that is a representation of the collection. So it had to cover all the periods ... and of course they were expecting to have the big names and so I was thinking of what it could be.
And then I thought, on a different level, to make a choice in the pieces of the collection that could be meaningful for people who are not familiar with Occidental modern art — to have a narrative. So what could be this narrative? And I thought Arcadia could be a way.
The other idea is more personal. It is the fruits of my reflection on modern art. We used to say that modern art starts with this famous painting by Manet — Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) — and we used to say this is the beginning of modern art because this is the destruction of the subject in painting, the narrative and so on. And I said, “Why can’t we consider the other side, that this particular painting introduced in modern times a kind of nostalgia for what we have lost in modern times, which is contact with nature.” So this is the narrative that is told in the exhibition itself and you can see that it makes sense to understand that many of these artists have a kind of wish to reconsider their relation to the cosmos.
(Arcadie consists of 83 objects by 42 masters. Its main theme investigates Arcadia — a region in central Greece that has taken on mythological resonance as a utopian land of abundance. Each of the exhibit’s 10 sub-themes addresses a detail of The Arcadian Shepherds by Renaissance painter Nicolas Poussin. Taken together the themes suggest aesthetic continuity between French classicism and European modernism as informed by artistic concerns that date back to antiquity.)
TT: Nicolas Poussin is a Renaissance painter who is generally considered by art historians to be working in a tradition different than the modern artists represented in the exhibit Arcadie.
DO: This is another point. I said making a narrative with the exhibition could be a way for people unfamiliar with this period of time in modern art [to access it]. The other point is to ask a question to the idea of modern art and say, “Why, after all, is this notion of willing to have a new relationship with nature not the key question for the time?” Especially now because it has become a big question for society everywhere: It’s the ecology, the green power — all these things. It could be the major question of the 20th century.