Friday at the museum, everyone was wearing their sparkliest polyesters. The occasion was the opening of the new exhibition “Pearls of France,” which is a show of French art through the ages sponsored by the Elysée Palace and corporations with interests in Kazakhstan. Somebody called it “grandiose and epoch-making.” It is an opportunity to see how the French project their cultural heritage unlike any we might have in the Europe or the USA, where we know a bit more about France. We can’t so easily be served Two-Buck Chuck and told it’s Grand cru (we probably could be, but no one dare try anymore).
The show is organized chronologically, beginning in the Medieval period and blowing breezily through periods like “The Age of Enlightenment,” “Romanticism” (Imperial France, roughly 1800-1850), and “Modernity.” Wall text is minimal, and the curators have substituted period music played through headphones in each room as a substitute for explaining context. While this is clever “multimedia solution” – very museum-of-the-21st-century feeling – one gets the sense it was dreamed-up primarily to save on translation costs. Music, though expressive, can also only tell you so much about the founding of the Third Republic.
At the outset of the exhibition, it is announced that the theme of the show is something like “the good life,” which already reveals a lot about how France is choosing to market itself to Kazakhs. The exponents (paintings, prints, photographs, tapestries and sculpture) are chosen to reflect the heights of material cultures and fashions in each period. The early climax of the show is therefore the Baroque period, in which lots of mildly cross-eyed women in improbably hats prance in Watteau-esque fantasies. But of course they don’t have any actual Watteaus. The French have provided only second-and third tier works, posters and photographs, even if some have famous names (Renoir, Matisse, Cartier-Bresson in the later rooms) attached to them. I know selection in this case was probably a function of insurance, but it comes across more like condescension. We can just imagine a museum director in Paris on a phone with the organizers: “You want to send what where?!”
The exhibition’s theme is sitting uneasily with me. The decision was either made by the French side, in which case they are marketing themselves to wealthy Kazakhs as the home of the highlife, land of silky butter and women, or by the Kazakh side, which is perhaps worse. The coordinator on the Kazakh side was none other than Dariga Nazarbayeva, daughter of the President, head of some cultural committees, and amateur opera star. Evidently her cosy relationship with the French goes back a few years. What irks me about the possibility that the luxury focus of the exhibit was her idea is that it appeals so baldly to the material envy of the aspirational-and-rising upper-middle class of Almaty and no one else in the country. They’ve certainly priced the exhibition as such: whereas normal price of admission is KZT 100 (USD 0.66), the cost of a ticket to “Pearls of France” is KZT 1500 (USD 10). More than any I’ve seen in a long time, this exhibit is bereft of social and educational purpose.
However, the museum staff are over the moon about the show. I keep hearing: “We’ve never had an exhibition from Europe!” And with a show from Europe came all these European standards and requirements. The French installation team (again, not trusting the locals) hung new track lighting, reinforced several of the walls on which tapestries or heavier paintings would hang, and issued a strict injunction against touching and photography. To comply with this last, the museum has tripled or quadrupled its staff of Old Crones, who seem just delighted to snapp at the young women and children who stroke paintings and sculptures (which does in fact happen a lot). All the pictures included here I took on my iPhone at great risk to life and limb lest an OC come at me with fingers hardened into knives by arthritis. When I asked a young staff member what she thought of the show, she said to me wide-eyed, “They repainted all the walls.” The museum doesn’t have the resources to do that for each new show – and yet we need to know about the good life in Louis XIV’s court?
Admittedly, the show includes some entertaining bits and pieces. I enjoyed the collection of photographs and prints in the 20th-century room, and I’m a sucker for Edith Piaf recordings, even if they are painfully predictable. I am also thrilled that the Kasteyev museum staff have pulled off such a publicity coup and, as they say, received an exhibition from Europe. With any luck, this will be the first of many, and the next will be better. “Pearls of France,” however, is a flop in my eyes. As I look around the halls, this pervading but evasive snobbishness haunts my peripheral vision. Even the Frenchman who wrote the lone critical essay in the very pretty catalog can’t muster the energy to be enthusiastic or interesting – his essay is just a recitation of the basics of French history possibly cribbed from Wikipedia. Had Americans done this, at the very least the show would be more successfully fun.