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Simple Shapes: Interview with Jean de Loisy, Pierre-Alexis Dumas and Laurent Le Bon
Jean de Loisy, president of the Palais de Tokyo Museum, stands next to a statue-menhir from Syria dating back to 1600 BC, during a presentation of the exhibition "Formes simples" (Simple Shapes), in Metz, on June 11, 2014 at the Centre Pompidou-Metz. The exhibit, which presents over 200 artworks, from prehistoric to contemporary times, runs from June 13 until November 5, 2014.

METZ.- How did the Simple Shapes project come about?
Pierre-Alexis Dumas:
From the very beginning of the Hermès foundation, we wanted to work with cultural establishments on the conception of an exhibition. It's important for us at the Foundation to be able to develop projects and bring them to fruition. The exhibition is the result of our meeting Jean de Loisy, and the discussion that followed on this notion of the simple shape.

Laurent Le Bon: It's actually a triangle… Jean de Loisy, who'd had this idea in mind for a while, mentioned it to me just as we, at Centre Pompidou-Metz, were putting together a programme of themed exhibitions that would consider art history from a particular perspective. The project then came together around the Fondation d'entreprise Hermès, almost three years ago.

Jean de Loisy: That's right. I'd spoken to Laurent Le Bon about this idea which was going through my mind. When I met Pierre-Alexis Dumas, it was still just an intention which had yet to take shape. It came up in the conversation, and the exhibition developed on three pillars: art, the hand (the tool, if you will) and nature.

What is a simple shape?
J. L.:
Certain shapes give the impression they have an inner energy. They go beyond their geometric definition without losing their unity.

P. A. D.: I would say the simple shape results from a sum of constraints which are imposed on the material. It is the minimum equilibrium between constraints and function; a mystery, and a constant source of wonder and emotions. l. l. B.: I'm tempted to explain simple shapes by antithesis.

They are neither simplistic, nor negative, nor rapid, nor minimalist. They are, perhaps, in fact highly complex shapes beneath a seemingly simple appearance.

J. L.: 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.

Modern artists have seized upon these shapes, but where do they originate?
J. L.:
Historically speaking, these shapes were very much in evidence in archaic societies, then disappeared in the west around the fifth century B.C. They then reappeared – and in this respect the subject is modernity – in the late eighteenth century under a threefold influence. Firstly the archaeological discoveries which fascinated artists, from Egyptomania to the important excavations undertaken in Greece in the nineteenth century, one consequence of which was the rediscovery of Cycladic civilisation. Then technology and all that engineers were able to achieve, Eiffel being a foremost example, as well as a sort of gnosticism which sparked renewed interest in primordial shapes that express the relationship between man and the cosmos. Lastly mathematics and science, particularly biology which at that time was especially focused on the growth of bones, cells, plants, etc. There are some very precise references whereby such and such a biologist influences Henry Moore, or one or other engineer Brancusi.

P.A. D.: The re-emergence of simple shapes is also linked to disciplines such as anthropology, with the discovery of other cultures and an influx of objects from Oceania or Africa, for example.etc.

J. L.: Absolutely! The rediscovery of these archaic societies…

P.A. D.: …certain of which are still alive. Every culture has its archetypal shapes which have come through the centuries as small objects, forming an unbroken thread. It's fascinating.

J. L.: That's one reason these shapes are so captivating. They are the present aspect of what is generally a very ancient memory.

How did this exhibition fit with programming at Centre Pompidou-Metz?
L. L. B.:
Simple Shapes will coincide with our fourth anniversary. It's more than a symbol; since Masterpieces? in our first year, each summer has been marked by a major event on a specific theme. Simple Shapes is a part of this polyptych which, I think, is gradually forging our identity as part of the Lorraine region.
How is the Fondation d'entreprise Hermès contributing to the organisation of this exhibition?

L. L. B.: This is a long-term partnership and a project centred on dialogue. The Foundation is attentive and has been present from the moment we put the very first ideas on paper. I believe the future of cultural adventures lies with strong, ethical publicprivate partnerships.

P. A. D.: This idea of a collective work is extremely important to us at the Foundation. We are an active contributor to the project at Centre Pompidou-Metz but with no involvement in artistic content or programming. It's highly motivating at a time when we are working to promote a form of patronage that is as virtuous as possible, meaning one that is truly in the public's interest.

The exhibition design emphasises sensations. What prompted this choice?
J. L.:
Because works which have simple shapes appeal directly to the collective sensibility, even if their particular theoretical or historical background can be complex.

L. L. B.: It's also a very structured layout which draws on Centre Pompidou's rich collections. Each section has its strengths: if one were missing, the whole architecture would collapse. The same is true of the two hundred works in the exhibition: there isn't a single one that could be easily replaced by another.

P. A. D.: Certain shapes are deeply moving. There are several ways to approach the exhibition; most of all though, it will inspire contemplation. I cannot imagine that anyone will be indifferent to the works on show.

J. L.: Whether it's an Arp, a Matisse, a Brancusi: these are inaugural shapes. 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.

Is there a universal quality to the exhibition?
J. L.:
The utopia which underpinned the invention of the simple shape, in the 1910s and 1920s, 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. An axe which has been polished in New Zealand, the Pyrenees or the Negev desert is almost the same. There is an attention to shape which all cultures share

Is the concept of beauty part of the exhibition equation?
J. L.:
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

P. A. D.: The individual gives way to an archetypal shape, using their talent to bring a shape into the world. In my mind, beauty is very much present but it constantly eludes us.

What do you hope to convey to the public?
J. L.:
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

P. A. D.: I hope this exhibition will intrigue people and invite them to reflect on the question of form. We live in a material society, surrounded by objects, and so it seems healthy that we should look again at form.

J. L.: 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.

This article first appeared in Le Monde d’Hermès , n° 64, January 2014. Interview by Marylène Malbert.

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