Art History Festival: it’ll be better tomorrow

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Le château de Fontainebleau pendant le festival de l’histoire de l’art en 2017
Photo : Didier Rykner
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We have been very supportive of the Art History Festival. So we’re not happy to see what it has become this year. When we say ’see’, it’s a big word because La Tribune de l’Art was completely absent from this year’s edition. Whereas we used to spend three days there, and a few years ago there were always several conferences or debates of interest to us, this year’s programme was so boring that we dispensed with the trip to Fontainebleau. And unfortunately we weren’t alone: many of the regulars chose not to attend. What are the problems with a festival that every year is worse than the last? We can list several:

 A lack of news-related events. Restoration work, museum renovations, heritage scandals, acquisitions, exhibitions, new attributions, discoveries of works, art market news... There are countless subjects that should at least occupy a third of the programme. Is there a lot of controversy? It should be a place for debate. As for the works of art, we get the impression that they don’t interest us, when they should be at the heart of the festival.

 The disappearance of the Friends of the Festival. Too independent for the organisers’ taste, the Friends of the Festival brought a breath of fresh air to the festival. In fact, they partly made up for the lack of events focusing on current affairs.

 The decline of the The Art Book Fair. Already last year, this fair had been pushed out of the Cour Ovale, and therefore off-centre, and was deserted by several publishing houses. This year, the number of absentees was even greater, despite the fact that the site is free! If these publishers are no longer interested, that’s a sign of something, but the organisers clearly don’t care.

 The tyranny of contemporary art. Since the festival is desperate to be ’modern’, it feels obliged to multiply its events around contemporary art. But art in the making is not yet art history. This is not an art festival, but a festival of art history.

 History intrudes too much (without art). Art history feeds on history, and vice versa. But an art history festival has no business hosting purely historical conferences or debates, which would certainly have their place in Blois but certainly not in Fontainebleau. We’ll take just one example this year (and there are many): "Suzanne Lenglen: and the woman created modern tennis"...

 The question of the guest country. The corollary of this alternation of one country each year is that Italy, Flanders, the Netherlands, Spain or Germany won’t be back for another twenty or thirty years at best. If we really want to retain this idea of a guest country, Italy, for example, should at least be invited every three or four years. Mexico is certainly very interesting, but why then have we almost totally disregarded the art of colonial Mexico? So the countries invited were pre-Columbian Mexico and contemporary Mexico. Do we really think we can attract a lot of people with such a limited subject?

 The choice of themes. This year being Olympic year, the theme was sport. In these conditions, it’s hard to really excite the crowds who feel that art from the Middle Ages to the 19th century should be an essential part of the festival.

For years now, we’ve been making the same criticisms - which are more like advice - of the festival, even though we have nothing but good things to say about it. The result, alas, is an ever-growing lack of interest in the festival, when it should be an opportunity to bring together all those involved in the history of art in France.

Fortunately, we can end on a hopeful note: next year’s programme looks rather promising for once. The country will be Austria, a nation rich in Baroque art, the Viennese Secession and the 19th century... We hope that all these periods will be sufficiently covered, as well as Austrian museums and heritage. As for the theme, it’s a real art history subject, and one that resonates with current events: "Real and Fake" is indeed a promising one. It’s highly likely that we’ll be there again next year, in the hope that after hitting rock bottom, the festival will finally be reborn.

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