There’s nothing “politically correct” about this exhibition. Here the women often tend to be nude, they smoke, and they pursue their own pleasure.
And it’s an American painter-voyeur by the name of Tom Wesselmann (1931-2004) who portrays, against a seaside background, surrounded by juicy fruit or next to a bowl of mayonnaise.
Wesselmann is less famous than his Pop contemporaries like Warhol and Lichtenstein, but what’s revealed in this exhibition at Villa Paloma, one of the two sites of the Nouveau Musée National de Monaco (NMNM), is that his output is fascinatingly complex.
Wesselmann is best known for his brazen, often faceless, colourful women, who made him famous in the 1960s. This was the “Great American Nude” series that he would produce again and again over the course of his career and whose imagery would prove pervasive in the art market.
Jeffrey Sturges, director of Tom Wesselmann’s estate, analyses the artist’s place within the Pop Art movement.
But Wesselmann is much more than that.
The curator of this small exhibition comprising just under 30 artworks, Chris Sharp, has created a kind of showcase that crescendos in pleasure.
The exhibition is called “La promesse du bonheur” (The promise of happiness).
Chris Sharp explains the idea behind the exhibition.
The first few works by the Pop artist are collages that combine collected images, for example, and paintings of young women with simplified lines on the canvas.
For Chris Sharp, Wesselmann represents a post-war society that wants to enjoy itself physically and materially in equal measure. He’s an experimenter.
So when in 1966 he paints a woman’s leg with the sea in the background from his “Seascape” series, it is painted on a new material: plexiglass.
He also seeks to give his paintings the illusion of three-dimensionality. He cuts up his canvases so as to allow only certain details to emerge, like an exposed breast obliterating the rest of the body it belongs to.
In doing so he makes a sculptural landscape out of his painting.
He details pre- or post-lovemaking scenes in his “Bedroom Paintings”.
Sneakers and a small pair of panties are depicted on a canvas that has been cut up using the lines of this new form of “still life” from 1981.
He adopts an unusual view point by displaying his subject’s body lying down, seen from below, and only showing their foot. The composition is made up of three canvases cut out and juxtaposed, in which we see the sole of the foot, then a watch, then a flower.
Wesselmann may be inventive, but he also evokes art history in his oeuvre.
It makes us think of Ingres’ odalisque painted in grisaille when he depicts his smoking woman in black and white, of Matisse’s later years when he plays with cut-out shapes, and of Fernand Léger when he makes geometric assemblages.
Wesselmann is a great painter who is ripe for rediscovery.
Until 6 January, Monaco. Tom Wesselmann. The promise of happiness. www.nmnm.mc