Through one’s profession – métier – one specifies oneself through forms
and determines one’s existence. Affected by historical and economic
constraints, a trade is as much about the practice of a skill as it is
about the expression of a need. But what about artists who have made
it their profession to create, use their creations as “tools” to live ? Where
do artists fit in as both artisans and inhabitants of a world that they
contribute to shape by what they make and how they live ?
Bringing together several generations of makers whose dialo-
gues span the ages, the exhibition explores the proximity between art
and applied disciplines. Far from an autarkic vision, the “métier de
vivre” thus explores the idea of broadening artistic activity so that it
encompasses de-compartmentalized and collective modes of production,
with the aim to revive exchanges between work and object, art and life.
In order to explore the nature of creations and creators, and
to question the ambiguous relationship they may have with the work
at hand and its use, the exhibition, following the tradition of medieval
“multi-purpose houses”, is organised in a space that is both a workshop
and a home.
This two-entrance space invites teachers, students, illuminators,
artists, embroiderers, designers and carpenters to participate in the
writing of a history in which trades, objects and beings merge beyond
their finalities to explore a new way of thinking and making forms.
The illuminator and the guild
Certain objects in the Beaux-Arts collection, some almost a thousand
years old, hark back to times when a different history of creation pre-
vailed. The Books of Hours, which structured the day for laypeople
through a set of prayers to be performed daily, are the embodiment of a
medieval society controlled by religion. These everyday objects describe
a period when art still conformed to the laws of custom, and artists
were considered craftsmen. Monastic guilds, thriving in anonymity,
articulated patterns and repetitions to put in writing the life of a man,
Christ, whose asceticism and modesty stood as exemplary. From the
parchment maker to the copyist, from the scribe to the illuminator, the
books passed from hand to hand, from expertise to expertise, crafted
by both the specific genius and collective engineering of these workers
of God. In the age of Gothic, which was as much a style as a system,
these craftsmen, breviary illuminators, image carvers and cathedral
builders merged with their works, only to disappear behind them.
From the Beaux Arts collection, vairous codex fragments dating
from the 15th century are nestled on the exhibition walls. Presenting tra-
ditional religious scenes, and illustrating the content of future prayers,
these pages are the work of a master illuminator whose name, Jacques
de Besançon, was given to him by history. Here, the artist Raphael
Sitbon has imagined a system of nested box-like structures that house
these precious works ; the horizontal and collective production processes
are, then and now, a model for a possible coming together of the arts.
The decorator and the company
In the 19th century, in an insular and Victorian England, a system called
capitalism was developed that imposed its law and creed : progress.
In contrast to this belief in machines and industry, the poet, painter
and architect William Morris initiated an artistic revolution: the Arts
& Crafts movement. Influenced by Marxist ideas and nostalgia for the
Gothic, he conceived new design and production paradigms.
The Decorative Arts became for him the medium through
which he pursued this political and aesthetic commitment to reintro-
duce pleasure into work and beauty into life. In response to a liberal and
competitive system, he recreated a corporation of craftsmen: Morris &
Co. At a time when tools were becoming mechanised and objects indus-
trialised, members of his firm were trained in traditional crafts such as
tapestry, embroidery, coppersmithing, marquetry and cabinetmaking.
In the same way, ornamentation and decorative patterns, inspired by
medieval interlaced designs, also become a means for Morris to counter
the standardisation of forms.
On loan from the Oscar Graf Gallery, three artefacts from
the Morris & Co. workshops can be seen in the domestic section of the
exhibition. A floral embroidery by Ann Daroch, based on a design by
William Morris, is displayed alongside a rosewood shelf designed by
Philippe Webb, the father of Arts & Crafts architecture. A sconce by
the designer William Arthur Smith Benson completes this selection of
objects that testify to a poignant union between production and design,
art and utility.
Artists and artisans
Late capitalism, characterised by the development of automation,
virtual worlds and artificial intelligence, raises further questions about
the shapes to come. The possible disappearance of work, the eclipsing
of objects and the rise of social solitude call for a renewed appreciation
of work as a means of sharing and finding happiness. In the wake of
this movement, the contemporary artists invited to participate in this
exhibition are firmly rooted, contrary to our past century’s conceptual
movements, in a newfound materiality, and sometimes even in the
idea of “making” as an end in itself. The poetic art of «making» has
gained renewed interest. Technique, which has often been dismissed
as secondary to concept, is regaining its power as a source of control
and freedom for artists. The expressiveness of manmade, handcrafted
objects is being rediscovered. As these artists learn from history and ac-
quire specific skills, they are able to resume a form of dialogue with past
makers. From illuminators to set designers, they follow in the footsteps
of men and women whose styles and practices constitute the formal
and conceptual resources that enable the invention of new narratives.
The project includes not only a series of works by artists who
are either graduates of the Beaux-Arts de Paris or people from outside
the school, but also several functional sculptures resulting from a col-
laboration with the École’s wood workshop (la base bois). Pursuing
a horizontal approach similar to the one adopted by William Morris
and past illuminators, supervisors, students and professors have wor-
ked on the construction of collective forms conceived as spaces where
dialogue can take place. In this system, pieces of furniture, sculptures
and structures blend together much in the same way as their authors.
A wall becomes a series of cabinets, a chair a stand, a table a chest of
drawers. The subversion of values and functions follows the logic of a
multi-purpose space that transitions from productive space to domestic
space. This theatre of objects, brought to life through the interplay of
construction, organisation and furnishing, creates a stage where the
actors of forms perform collectively a trade… The trade of living.