Art is a way of knowing one’s self

Daiga Rudzāte

An interview with French art collector Gilles Fuchs in Paris


Gilles Fuchs, the president of ADIAF (Association pour la Diffusion Internationale de l'Art Français), is a passionate art collector who describes himself as an “art maniac”. Established in 1994 by five French art collectors with the goal of popularising French contemporary art globally, ADIAF is the association that gave rise to the Marcel Duchamp Prize, awarded to young, talented artists of French heritage or living in France. 

Arterritory met with Fuchs in his apartment in Paris in late 2014. Fuchs does not have an exhibition hall or museum to house his collection; he keeps it close by, in his home. Fuchs lives with his art, in the truest sense of the expression, and it is therefore no wonder that later in our conversation he says that his art collection is an illustration of his life. The walls in his hallway are covered with Daniel Buren's legendary black-and-white stripes, the same stripes that are one of the trademarks of the controversial Les Deux Plateaux installation in the Palais Royal courtyard. In his living room, a bunch of white tulips adorns a low table whose glass top protects a piece of artwork by Christian Boltanski. There is art wherever one looks, even in places where at first glance one sees none. The windows open to a view of the Seine River and the Louvre, one of the bastions of French culture. “We have not been created by politicians; we are the descendants of our own heroes,” says Fuchs. “And the heroes of France are not, for instance, Napoleon. Instead, they are François Rabelais, Nicolas Poussin, Voltaire, Maurice Ravel, Gustave Courbet.”

Markus Raetz Tanz 2. 2002

Paris hosted a number of significant exhibitions in late 2014. Among these were an exposition of Marcel Duchamp's paintings and a retrospective of Jeff Koons' artwork at the Centre Pompidou, thereby bringing together two artists without whom we cannot imagine modern contemporary art. Duchamp is generally considered the starting point for all contemporary art, while Koons' name embodies the glamour and contradictions of today's art world. One was a Frenchman who became an American citizen; the other is an American who regularly organises blockbusters in Europe. For Fuchs, these two exhibitions serve as illustrative graphic material for formulating and defining thoughts about the nature and mentality of art.

I stand at the window, gazing at the Louvre, when a voice surprises me from behind. Fuchs doesn't wait for my questions; the interview begins before we even sit down.

Gilles Fuchs: None of the forms of expression may be secondary. Right now I'm very interested in a few French painters, and I buy mostly  paintings. They have a feeling of presence. You can feel the artist's touch. And besides, painting was the first form of conceptual expression. Painting transforms reality into an image that has nothing to do with reality. And that's absolute conceptualism. France characteristically has an intellectual view of art. It's a peculiarity of ours – we like conceptualists very much. But we've forgotten that painting is the very first expression of conceptualism.

You once said that you consider Duchamp the most significant phenomenon in art. And the prize you established is also named after him. Have you read the article in The Art Newspaper that states Duchamp stole his Fountain from the German baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven?

Really? No, I didn't know that. But Fountain wasn't Duchamps' first readymade. His first was the Bicycle Wheel. But I'd very much like to read that article. Because, you know, I'm not a Marcel Duchamp specialist. But I do find him very interesting. Because he's a typical Frenchman. If we're talking about the French spirit, then Duchamp completely embodies it. Intelligence and intellectualism above all else. And yet there's also a lot of sensitivity. And...a certain dose of laziness.

We have three people who I consider a concentrated summary of all things French: Paul Valery, a mind-boggling phenomenon, if you immerse yourself in his life story; Ravel, who composed as precisely as Bach, but not as boringly; and Duchamp. Did you see his exhibition at the Centre Pompidou? Truly fascinating, if you look at it from the scientific viewpoint. Because it's nothing extraordinary from the artistic viewpoint. It's interesting to see his way of thinking and working, his links to friends, his references for painting. I wouldn't call his painting good, but it is interesting precisely from the viewpoint of his creativity. I think he stopped painting because he realised he would never be like Picasso, Braque or others. He was a person who did not like being in second place.

But one of the characteristics common to both Valery and Duchamp is the presence of eroticism in their lives and art. And that's also one of the things that's essential in French people's lives. The Palais d'Orsay's unusual exhibition Sade. Attacking the Sun reveals that the Marquis de Sade's so-called “sadism” freed painting because it freed up a type of thinking. And the first part of the Duchamp exhibition focuses on eroticism. And right next door at the Centre Pompidou is Jeff Koons. But eroticism means something completely different for Koons.

Because Koons is an American?

The way Koons expresses himself is typically American. It fits with American way of life. Art must force you to look at yourself. I'm not convinced Koons is able to do that. But in any case, his exhibition is wonderfully set up. If you haven't seen it, you just can't imagine it. It has a lot of artwork, but it's difficult to grasp. Actually, you can see a large part of the exposition “in one frame”; in a matter of minutes, you're completely inside it and can see everything. And the backdrop – seen through the Centre Pompidou's large windows – is a view of Paris with Montmartre's Sacré-Cœur basilica at the centre. A grey yet beautiful view of the city with gigantic, bright playthings at the forefront. Koons is at the exact place he wants to be, the centre of civilisation. And he's there with something very different and extravagant – in a way, something very happy, in a way perfect. In French we might use the expression that translates to “everyone is beautiful, everyone dies”. And you know, that corresponds very well with the Koons exhibition. A philosophy of perfectionism, happiness and beauty exhibited against a backdrop of infinitely beautiful drama, the city. The contrast is quite inconceivable. Koons was also at the Palace of Versailles, and that was interesting, interesting to see how they combined these two so contrasting and at once similar phenomena. The old palace, which once embodied mightiness and wealth, and today's homage to power and money. But unfortunately, Koons' art didn't really fit in at Versailles. From the aesthetic viewpoint, the contrast was too great. But the Centre Pompidou is a completely different case. Here, Koons is in exactly the right spot. Actually, he's at the very centre of the city. And that's extraordinary.

And yes, he also fills the space with his own eroticism. You know, at my age it doesn't mean much, but it might be exciting to youngsters.

But doesn't it become boring to see the same art all over the world – the same couple dozen so-called current superstars of the art world?

You know, that's actually about exhibition organisers, curators and also art collectors. It's not about the artists. I knew Koons when he was still very young, and he was a very simple person. Now, of course, he's been elevated to this high level of fame and quality. Of course, he still retains certain characteristics, and, of course, we can discuss whether it's art or not. But who really knows? Nowadays.

Well, the market positions it as outstanding art. Have artists become mere screws in the art industry?

Maybe it's a sort of revolution in the art world.

I'm happy that thousands of people go to the Pompidou to see Jeff Koons' artwork. Better they do that than do something else. But, as an art addict, I can say that I don't think that's what the epitome of art could be. 

But, if rock stars want to buy work by other stars, why not? In the context of art, money doesn't mean a whole lot to me. I don't think its value can be measured in money. Artists like Boltanski seem much more interesting to me than Jeff Koons. I'm part of the generation that doesn't buy art for its value. I buy art for my intellectual enjoyment. But that's an endangered viewpoint, one that's dying out. And the mass media, who always like to talk about money, are also among the culprits. In place of art exhibition reviews, the largest French newspapers now list auction records. And everyone is thinking about it. Every taxi driver knows that Koons' artwork costs millions. They don't talk about whether his artwork is good or not, but they do talk about how much it costs.

Gregory Forstner. L’hôtesse de l’air #10 – La Coquette, 2006. Courtesy of the artist

You said who can tell today whether something is art or not. But what do you yourself believe is art, and what do you try to find in it?

I think art is one of the forms of introspective journey. Initially, beauty was a significant ingredient of art. If you look back to the Renaissance and even earlier, artists tried to create and embody in their work a kind of perfection, an ideal that the viewer could wish to emulate. Everything's changed now, we now look for something different in art. Maybe we try to find a balance within ourselves. Art is an instrument that can help us to study ourselves – who are “you”, who might “you” be, what are “you” looking for, and so on. It's not a religion, but it is a type of thinking. Even if Duchamp doesn't excite you, he does pose questions. Even if they're only questions like why don't I like it, what do I think about it, and why do I think that way? It really is a way of finding one's self. 

A way of knowing one's self?

Yes, it's a way of knowing one's self. Because none of us are the same, and each of us has our own ego that always dominates. It's interesting to discover these contrast in one's self. Why do we accept one thing but not another.

Did you inherit your passion for art from your father, who was also a collector?

My father was an art collector, but his passion was Islamic and Chinese art as well as 18th-century French objects. What's interesting, however, is that my father can be considered something of an avantgardist, because at that time Chinese art was not longer in fashion and Islamic art was absolutely unknown. He looked at and perceived various phenomena as an intellectual. My father enjoyed comparing civilisations and posing the question of which of them was superior.

What was your very first purchase, and is it still in your collection?

My first was a small René Magritte. In fact, this purchase began with a Magritte exhibition that I had recently seen in Paris when I was about 18 years old. I found the exhibition alarmingly interesting. Of course, surrealism as such was known in France, but before this exhibition it had never had such a powerful impact on me. And so, two or three months after the exhibition, a friend of my father's came to visit. He demonstrated this small work by Magritte and asked my father whether he wanted to acquire it. My father was completely indifferent to the work, but not me, who was still under the powerful influence of Magritte. And so I asked my father to buy it for me. Actually, the painting didn't cost a thing, very little, but it is truly great, outstanding. An original depiction of a woman's hip means something to a young person (laughs). I was, truly, fascinated. As opposed to my father. But he was able to understand my enthusiasm for this painting, for its image. That was my first purchase, even though I didn't pay for it myself.

Do you still own the painting?

Yes, I still have it. Because I like it very much. But I wasn't buying art yet as a collector back then. I later met a man, René de Montaigu, who had a fantastic collection of modern art. I was friends with his son and was often a guest at the family's home in southern France. He was always meeting many artists. And it was at their home, which differed so greatly from my own home decorated in an 18th-century spirit, that I was truly swept away by fantastic paintings. I was fascinated by the art I saw there. René took note of my interest and said to me that, if I wanted, he would introduce me to artists in Paris. And that's pretty much how it began. My ambition was never to collect art. Actually, I don't like the word “collector”, and I've never aspired to be one. But, you know, if you buy similar things for over fifty years, in the end you become a collector. But that's not the only word for this process. You also become a maniac. I don't know if that happens to everyone, but...

But what was it that swept you away and didn't let go of you?

When I entered this world of contemporary creativity, the first thing that interested me was precisely this creativity. When I worked in a fashion house, I was particularly interested in people's creativity. When someone blows life into something that has not existed before. It was this, instead of aesthetics, that interested me. And likewise, in the art world I was fascinated by artists' creativity and the power that flowed from  it. 

Later, when I was already inside the art world, my first desire was to discover new things and phenomena. And also, the opportunity to enter a world that actually doesn't exist. Just like travelling to Venice and spending three days there, all the while knowing that that's not reality, that that's not your real life. It's like entering a kind of dream. And at the same time, it's still a part of your life. I perceive these works of art as an illustration of my life instead of parts of a planned collection. I don't know where I'll go tomorrow. I haven't the slightest idea.

You are very emotional in your relationship to art.

Yes, I'm very emotional. And art gives me true enjoyment and makes me happy. Art is like friends I can speak with. My collection is very varied. Because the world we live in is so varied. I've travelled a lot throughout my life. I've often been in South America, in Japan. And I've bought souvenirs – pieces of artwork – to bring home. Art is absolutely a part of my life. It's not just an appendage, but an actual ingredient of my life. Especially now, when I'm no longer active as a businessman.

Chen Zhen. Village sans frontière, 2000. Courtesy of Xu Min

I remember reading about how you acquired artwork by Raymond Hains....

You know, he was one of the first artists I met. I still remember very clearly that I had no idea what I was buying when I bought his artwork. And when I say no idea, that means absolutely zero. I didn't understand anything. I remember bringing it home, placing it in my room, looking at it and.... In France, there were special places for men to relieve themselves in public, places to pee, with a screen to hide behind. And the object I had just bought looked like these screens on the streets of Paris. And, of course, other people who saw it said the same thing.

A short while later – and this is really unusual – this object became a part of me. And then I understood why it looked like it did. Maybe I heard an explanation somewhere, but I don't think I did. I understood it was a special gesture, a dedication to Duchamp. And suddenly Paris seemed completely different to me, too. That's something inconceivable. The same can be said of the work by Boltanski in this room. At first, I had no idea what it was. It's like if you suddenly find a weapon that you've never seen before in your life and don't know what to do with it. And that's exactly the miracle of art. You figure it out, and then everything you see changes. You change yourself, too. Because artists always influence our way of looking at life, at the world, at civilisation. And it's manifested in various ways, in your self-expression as well. After “you” have accepted something, many things change. Not everything, but many things do change. If we speak of Jeff Koons, I don't know whether that's art or not. Whether it's good or bad art. Of course, I always pose questions to myself about art. Just like I pose questions to myself about life. When I buy a new piece of artwork, I'm not convinced why I do it. There's something inside me, but I don't know what it is. But gradually something happens with me.

In our conversation, you've often mentioned the French mentality and views and icons of French culture. But is something like a national art scene still possible in our modern world, in this era of globalisation?

But globalisation is nothing. Globalisation has always existed. The Greeks sold their goods to the Romans. And during the Renaissance, French artists headed to Italy to study. And Leonardo da Vinci died in France. François-René de Chateaubriand went to the United States. Monet was influenced by Japanese art and Picasso by African sculptures. But a trip to China took three months back then. The world wasn't so fast then. But globalisation has always existed. What is new, after all? But I believe that art is different forms of expression used by different civilisations and different peoples. And thank God for that! Otherwise it'd be the end. I don't think the self-expression of French people is the same as that of Italians or Japanese. When you listen to Wagner, you know very clearly that it wasn't a Frenchman who wrote the music. But if you listen to Ravel, you know he wasn't a German. That's if you're able to feel and perceive culture to any extent. I'm not saying French art is better, nor am I saying that American art is superior in any way, or that anyone is better than anyone else. But they are different. And some of them don't interest me as much as others. I prefer French music and French art. Every powerful territory has its own specific forms of self-expression, and it's interesting to get to know these.

What is a specific feature of French art?

The centre of our world is the person; everything is measured according to the person. Commensurability and balance is what we try to stand for and defend. And also freedom, fraternity, equality. Those are solid, substantial things that are important everywhere in the world, but we write these words on the façades of our buildings. As a sort of reminder.

I think art must be able to move each individual, but it needn't become aggressive or oppressive. Art is something that encourages a dialogue directly with you. French contemporary art is, truly, intellectual and conceptual. And this is what I like the best about it. This restraint, this balance, which is the complete opposite of today's world, which embraces everything that's overdone, extremes. Today's world likes competition and records, but that cannot be humanity's future.

You once said that French art might not seem very interesting to the world because it's not vulgar enough....

Yes, that's the way it often is. You already know, there's a trend to make democratic art, art that can be understood by everybody. You could say that street art is art. And it might be. In any case, it is a form of self-expression. But the goal of art is to make people look at themselves, to rise above themselves rather than to sink deeper. In any case, it's not vulgarity that I seek and look for in art.