Bouvard and Pécuchet’s Compendious Quest for Beauty

This Is Tomorrow, 2012. Original article

Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 11.51.46Bouvard and Pécuchet’s Compendious Quest for Beauty

David Roberts Art Foundation, London

It is a good thing the word “compendium” features so prominently even before you enter the gallery, as it makes a helpful prelude of what is to come. “Where is the rule?” is what Bouvard and Pécuchet used to say, the characters from Gustave Flaubert’s unfinished novel whose name has been given to this exhibition. The two Parisian gentlemen would meet to fuel each other’s curiosity about the world, studying a myriad of subject ranging from agriculture to medicine. After spending an hour at the David Roberts Art Foundation I am not sure if I am any the wiser about this elusive rule, but I do believe this show is not about a hunt for the red thread – but an exploration of that thing they call beauty. At least that is what followed my initial confusion about the volume of such diverse pieces, once I gave in and just focused on how good most of these works ultimately are.

34 artworks from as many artists make up this exhibition, including several famous names. Sometimes it feels like an education, while in other moments it is just luxurious to wander in a space where pieces were chosen because the curators liked them; the search for beauty has overwhelmed all other concerns. Still, says Pécuchet: “Beauty must be sought within a rule,” so the exhibition is divided into nine categories. But then Bouvard says: “Everybody knows that rules are not sufficient. Something else is needed: genius. And genius comes from sentiment, manifesting in expression.”

An urn by Grayson Perry is the first item comes first, representing the “Classic v expression” category. Photographed faces are contrasted against classical drawings around the pot, perfectly illustrating in a single work the points made by both Pécuchet and Bouvard about rules and their counterweight. “Memento mori” has Gerald Byrne’s large black and white photo of a newsstand, where an extra layer of meaning is derived from the juxtaposition of David Shrigley’s taxidermy kitten carrying a sign reading: “I’m dead”. The “Realism” segment has Thomas Demand’s large photograph of an empty office next to a perfectly crafted bin bag by Gavin Turk and a broom by Susan Collis, both easily mistakable for something left by the cleaners. Notes Bouvard: “The most banal things are liable to reveal new facets about the world. Modern life conceals within itself so much richness.”

‘Female beauty’ is the biggest single category in the show, with Valie Export’s “Body Sign Action 2” from 1970 being a standout piece. A big black and white image shows us a close-up of a woman’s hips; she has an intriguing tattoo on her thigh and her shadow plays up against the wall behind. Only then do you realise she is naked, a fact less subtle in the other images from this segment. One is a classic topless pose, another is a comical sex painting, the third is a man surveying a woman presented to him. Another excellent piece is Mario Pascual’s “Untitled” from 2010, where the photograph is gently folded in the middle so most of the woman disappears. Her head and shin sticks out, and somehow this is the most titillating of all.

Down the stairs, to “Abstraction”, we encounter Roy Lichtenstein’s six images of a cow. Each reworking looks less and less like an animal, illustrating Pécuchet’s point about abstraction being the final stand against art needing to represent anything at all: “One must reduce, purify.” Less obvious in its message but possibly even more intriguing is Bram Bogart’s “Blanc tombant”, where piled-on layers of paint are now hidden under a coat of white. Next, in the “Outsider beauty” category, is Douglas White’s “Mop print 1”: a large tea stain on a piece of paper, buckled from the moisture long since evaporated.

At the end of the exhibition we find “The sublime”: consisting of only one piece of art, by Graham Hudson. By this point, Bouvard and Pécuchet have run out of words to try and determine the difference between the beautiful and the sublime, and how to measure taste, because the rules have proved useless. Hudson’s rectangular box lined with lights spin slowly, and there is only one thing to say: how wonderful.


Published by Jessica Furseth

Journalist; Londoner.