First on your left as you enter is a drawing,
no more than a half-metre square, offering a window onto a strange kind of Eden. Giant flowers, twined like musical clefs, shade tiny trees through which goat-thighed imps frolic and drink toasts. A microcosmic Cockayne rendered in a spidery greyscale, it’s seemingly hellbent on leaving as little white space unfilled by fairytale whimsy as possible. But this is not an illustration from Tolkien nor a preparatory sketch for some phantasmagoria of Bosch or Enki Bilal. The signature identifies it as a product of the spirit world, by ‘Victorien Sardou, medium’.
There is something of the night about Purkinje Effect. Curated by artist Laurent Grasso for the Palais de Tokyo’s Nouvelles Vagues seasonof new curating talent, its title derives from the nocturnal distortion in colour contrast first noticed by Czech anatomist Jan Purkyne. Grasso cheerfully admits that he is no curator. Nonetheless, the selection testifies to a strain of research and adept juxtaposition that has long characterised his endeavours – in particular, perhaps, last year’s solo show Uraniborg, at the Jeu de Paume across town.
Working on that, Grasso became fascinated by a grotto built by Huguenot craftsman Bernard Palissy in the surrounding Tuileries gardens. So he was immediately struck, upon delving into Galerie 1900–2000’s collection, by a sketch (Quartier des Animaux chez Zoroastre, Bernard Palissy, c. 1860) by the aforementioned Sardou, a dramatist, apparently under psychic dictation from Palissy himself, now resident on Jupiter and living next door to Zoroaster (whose home, in florid curlicues, the drawing depicts).
Palissy’s ghost is not the only spirit haunting this exhibition. The death mask of Paul Éluard hangs austere and impassive, marred by bullet holes received during the liberation of Paris when it hung in André Breton’s studio. The two surrealists had been fascinated by death masks since their discovery, in the late 1920s, of a book by Ernst Benkard. Éluard confessed to Breton he had dreamt about an anonymous girl whose mask he’d seen in that book, and consequently took the unusual step of posing for his own cast. Hence Éluard’s death mask was shot while its model still lived.
Elsewhere are a full moon in miniature by Picabia amidst a dense swirl of nautical blue (Point, 1951); a strutting portrait of the actress Musidora, star of Louis Feuillade’s Vampires serials; and an oil painting by Dorothea Tanning (Une Lune dans l’Autre, 1958) from the moment when her more figurative dream images burst into blushes of abstract colour. Each one the inhabitant of a liminal twilight world. The three of his own works that Grasso has included might be situated both before and after all of these.
Two 2012 paintings from his Studies into the Past series, depicting a flock of birds swooping through a forest clearing and an eclipse over a medieval cityscape, involved professional restorers advising Grasso on how to match the velvet hues of Renaissance oils, though no cinquecento Florentine ever depicted such marvels. The neon Purkinje Effect (2013), meanwhile, spreads art nouveau-esque tendrils from its gleaming lettering, though that material was unknown to the belle époque. All three works look backward while reaching forward, spreading light while hinting at darkness.
Grasso’s selection delights in the narrative powers of objects and the dreamlike crossing of paths. In a vitrine, the open pages of the surrealist journal Minotaure present Breton’s famous essay ‘Le Message Automatique’ (1933), and facing it, a reproduction of Sardou’s Quartier des Animaux chez Zoroastre. Purkinje Effect accordingly revisits Surrealism through surreal eyes, more like a baroque cabinet of curiosities than a standard museum show – and all the better for it.
This article was first published in the October 2013 issue.