PARIS.- The Musée de la musique dedicates an exhibit to Serge Gainsbourg (1928-1991) at a time when his popularity is expanding internationally. While in London and New York, contemporary pop is discovering the poetic and melodic talents of this French artist, Tokyo is experiencing a veritable Gainsbourgmania through the mixing and sampling of his compositions.
This exhibition is organized thanks to the remarkable loans granted by the family, and particularly Charlotte Gainsbourg, as well as by close friends of Serge Gainsbourg.
The Musée de la musique has entrusted the organization of this project to the artist and sound illustrator Frédéric Sanchez. Cutting-edge in its operation, a mix between an exhibition and an installation, the project serves as homage to a present-day artist with one of the most significant French musical personalities in the 20th century.
Successively a painter, writer, poet, author, performer, composer, actor and director, Serge Gainsbourg was an artist who, throughout his life, used the image in all its forms and particularly his own, revealing an aesthetic universe that eliminated the boundary between major arts and minor arts.
The exhibit emphasizes the different aspects of this multifaceted work, recognized distinctly as a catalyst of the ages for forty years, following the examples of David Bowie in England and Bob Dylan in the United States. Gainsbourg was always ahead of his time: his writing, compositions, collaborations, aesthetic tendencies and even the course of his personal life often preceded and influenced moral evolution and that of artistic and cultural movements.
By playing with words and references, borrowing as much from classic culture as from popular culture, moving forward, transforming and arranging, he invented a new form of composition made from montages and collages.
The exhibit emphasizes the modernity of his work with music, words and images. Sampling, mixing, remixing, borrowing, quotation, self-quotation and alteration predominate and foreshadow the images and sounds of present-day culture. The exhibit features over one hundred animated images, excerpts from films and audio-visual documents, photographs
The public will also discover objects or works of art once owned by the artist, such as the statue of LHomme à tête de chou (Cabbage-headed man) by Claude Lalanne, which inspired the album of the same name, or Paul Klees painting, Mauvaises Nouvelles des étoiles (1913), which provided the title for Gainsbourgs album in 1981.
The famous Autoportrait painted in 1957, sometimes reproduced, will be presented for the first time to the public as well as a large number of original manuscripts, objects and documents demonstrating the written work of Serge Gainsbourg.
Vanessa Paradis, Bambou, Alain Chamfort, Isabelle Adjani, Jaine Birkin, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Catherine Deneuve, Jacques Dutronc, Lulu
A sound design was created by Fédéric Sanchez based on Gainsbourgs texts which are read by these artists, who either met him or were inspired by him at one point in their lives.
For forty years, Gainsbourg relentlessly created associations and correspondences between words, images and music.
This exhibit is visualized as an authentic spatial positioning in three dimensions, inviting visitors on a dream-like voyage into the artists universe, a voyage that solicits the imaginary like that of Alice by Lewis Carroll, a writer often called upon by Serge Gainsbourg.
In the style of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin in Jean-Christophe Avertys film Melody Nelson, made for television in 1971, the visitor finds himself plunged into the heart of the artists poetic and sophisticated universe and his numerous references and sources of inspiration.
The setup of the visit is a basic walk in a maze of thematic totems, each three meters high, upon which several hundred pieces of lighting equipment present photographic and audiovisual documents. A procession of images with sounds
that move through the space: screens with synchronized images, spatially composed sound
The visitor creates his own rhythm by passing from one period to the next
Shortcuts, accelerations, flashbacks, connections and false connections, the setup of the exhibit resembles a labyrinth of images and sounds.
Manuscripts and objects are displayed in a long showcase window with a background of mirrors, creating the illusion of increased space and infinitely reflecting the images calling to mind of Gainsbourgs kaleidoscopic universe.
More than three hundred sleeves of records recorded by Serge Gainsbourg and his different interpreters are displayed in a smaller room adjoining the exhibit. Listening booths permit the visitor to listen to the Serge Gainsbourgs works of his choosing.
The exhibit focuses on four major periods:
I The Blue Period (1958 -1965)
The first thematic ensemble of the exhibit retraces the years of Serge Gainsbourgs artistic education in a literary manner, his outset as an accursed painter and promising songwriter.
In the 1920s, Joseph Ginsburg, painter and pianist, left Russia with his wife Olga and arrived in France via Constantinople. Images of Crimea, loaned by Jacqueline Ginsburg, Serges sister, portray their native region, which is also that of Tchekov. Bosporus, the required crossing point for Russian emigrants bound for Europe, is captured in Maurice Pialats short film La Corne dor. A made-fortelevision film from the 1960s, Lapin de Noël, depicts the Russian cabarets frequented by Serge Gainsbourg in Paris.
Lucien Ginsburg was born in Paris in 1928. He grew up in the neighborhood of la Nouvelle Athènes (9th arrondissement), between the homes of George Sand and Gustave Moreau, whom he would film, camera in hand, in 1982. His father developed his taste for an existence essentially dedicated to the arts and creation, beginning rigorously with the piano and the study of musical geniuses of the 19th and 20th centuries, such as Stravinsky and Chopin, from whom he particularly enjoyed the Studies and Preludes. On the radio station TSF, he listened to two legendary interpreters, Alfred Cortot, the decipherer of Chopin, and Horowitz, the genius of the century. Without the knowledge of his father, he also listened to the corny, popular refrains of Charles Trenet and the dramatic odes of Fréhel, one of the most popular realist singers in the 1930s, both of whom touched and inspired him. Joseph Ginsburg, studying under Fred Adison at Maxims at the time, introduced Lucien to jazz and the piano-bar atmosphere.
Likewise encouraged by his father, Lucien took drawing classes at the Académie Montmartre from André Lhote, a renowned post-impressionist painter, and from Fernand Léger, the celebrated inventor of tubism. At age twentytwo, he was impressed by cubists, surrealists and post impressionists. As a second job, he began to play the piano in cabarets and jazz clubs, such as Madame Arthur, Milord lArsouille and Les Trois Baudets, on the right bank of Paris. After seventeen years of paint, canvases, colors, Gainsbourg, who wanted to paint without getting his hands dirty, could not find a patron and abandoned painting during his thirtieth year. His Autoportrait is displayed in the exhibit as one of the rare testimonials to his pictorial production. In 1986, he confided: Perhaps, in the eyes of those affected with mental blindness, I will have never accomplished more in my life than a self-portrait with all the turbulent implications of a Francis Bacon. An exceptional photograph from the Roger Viollet agency shows him facing one of his canvases, having since disappeared.
It was the combination of two meetings that caused Serge Gainsbourg to turn away from painting: Boris Vian and Michèle Arnaud, two figures tutelary to the beginning of his career. Still infatuated with the divide between major arts and minor arts emphasized by his father, he discovered Boris Vian onstage and was introduced to Michèle Arnaud, Vians back-up musician. Boris Vian, an agitator, polygraph, producer, jazz amateur, and writer of humorous, cruel and caustic songs, was, onstage, a true shock for Lucien. He then decided, at the Milord dArsouille, to show his compositions to Michèle Arnaud, who initially interpreted them herself before forcing Lucien onstage. In 1958, either inadequate for the art market or so visionary to the point of wanting to create a different type of image, Lucien Ginsburg abandoned both his first vocation and his name. He released the song Le Poinçonneur des Lilas under the family name of Serge Gainsbourg. I shored along the terrifying beaches of pop music and left painting adrift. (À bout portant, 1973)
At the end of the 1950s, one no longer described a song as intellectual, but rather as rive gauche (left bank). After having been rive droite (right bank) with the blonde Michèle Arnaud, Serge Gainsbourg obtained a passport for the left bank, landing him in Saint-Germain-des-Près with a brunette this time, Juliette Gréco, for whom he wrote La Javanaise, an homage to Boris Vians Javanese java. Later, in 1976, Serge Gainsbourg dedicated his first feature film, Je taime moi non plus, to Boris Vian. Serge Gainsbourg, like Brel and Brassens, gained the favor of those devoted to intellectual songs: Boris Vian, after reading a collection of texts from Cole Porter, told Gainsbourg that he had the same prosody, the same enjambment technique alliteration and the writer Marcel Aymé signed a congratulatory note on the jacket of his first LP record.
Serge Gainsbourg, and not without humorous reference to Picasso, characterized the first part of his career as the Blue Period, marked by a certain melancholy: the blues of a poinçonneur (ticket-puncher) who, subjected to a loathsome task, creates for himself a mental Eden; the always thwarted illusion to love and to be loved, as expressed in Ce mortel ennui, Les Oubliettes or En relisant ta letter; or even the benefits of self-destruction through artificial highs (LAlcool, Intoxicated Man, Coco and co). The Connection (1960), a play by Shirley Clarke about drugs and staged by the Living Theater, deeply impacted the singer through its aesthetic representation of jazz. Through his references to love poetry, sometimes even putting these poems to music (Baudelaire, Le Rock de Nerval, La Nuit doctobre) and by borrowing from jazz and African rhythms, Serge Gainsbourg became a stunning character in the panorama of the French realist song genre.
II The Idols (1965 -1969)
In the mid 1960s, Serge Gainsbourgs rhythmic compositions the atonal music and the free verses of modernity and text-based songs were judged as conventional by his contemporaries who had since become fans of yeye. Yeye, a regressive French form of English pop, was the common denominator among young hit singers talking about love to a public of mostly seventeen-year-olds. Gainsbourg explained to Denise Glaser on the June 16, 1963 broadcast of Discorama: I am the new wave. I care very little about how many issues of Tintin were released this week and I dont really want to add a y to my stage name. I practice a different trade, and that [yeye] is just sub-titled American music. French music must not passively follow that of America. One must take modern themes, sing about the concrete, tractors, the telephone, the elevator, and not just narrate, especially at age eighteen when youre in love and when youve broken up. In modern life, there is an entire language to invent.
After having defended the idea of a music variety which borrows from classic music and realism in song, Gainsbourg ultimately changed his mind. Like Charles Aznavour, who also began his career in cabarets and who wrote Retiens la nuit for Johnny Halliday and La plus belle pour aller danser for Sylvie Vartan, Gainsbourg offered his talents to another teen idol, France Gall, by writing Poupée de cire, poupée de son which earned her a Eurovision prize. Assisted by his arranger, Alain Goraguer, he became a pop author and wrote more than one hundred songs in 1967.
The second part of the exhibit highlights this period of prolific creation, where Serge Gainsbourg surpassed the title of promising songwriter to that of artistic director. His appearance with Jean Gabin in La Pacha promoted this image of a composer en vogue, accustomed to recording studios and hidden by plumes of smoke. His departure from the stage for the studio coincided with his growing interest in English pop and new teen idol singers. He introduced English arrangements into his music, blended in Anglicisms which he would murmur using the talk-over method and played the role of the White Negro much like Mick Jagger. Moreover, he began to delight his fans by writing several yeye melodies whose lyrics take a derisive tone toward pop idols: Nécoute pas les idoles or Les Sucettes, both deliciously perverse, were written for France Gall, as well as Teenie Weenie Boppie which describes the effects of LSD on an innocent young girl. In 1967, the ORTF aired a musical, Anna, produced by Michèle Arnaud and directed by Pierre Koralnik, which brought together the avant-garde of film, technology and music to a primetime audience. Anna Karina and Jean-Claude Brialy, both members of the New Wave, played the heroes of the story, with Victor Upshaw as choreographer. Serge Gainsbourg composed the music while also appearing onscreen with Marianne Faithfull and Eddie Mitchell. Some excerpts and exceptional images of the making-of are displayed in the exhibit.
Gainsbourg began collaborating with William Klein, a New York photographer previously responsible for the visual design of Zazie, dans le metro, for whom he composed the music for Mister Freedom, a work of fantasy pop art, similar to the style of comic strip which deals with the invasion of American culture in France. It was a time when superheroes were frequently headlined: Mister Freedom, Guy Peellearts Pravda la Survivreuse inspired by Françoise Hardy, Barbarella and her younger sister Marie Mathématique by Jean-Claude Forest, and of course Brigitte Bardot in Comic Strip.
After having written for Anna Karina, France Gall, Françoise Hardy, Mireille Darc and Valérie Lagrange, Serge Gainsbourg began composing for Brigitte Bardot (more a French icon than an idol), most notably a series of memorable songs created for the Bardot Show on December 31, 1967: Harley Davidson, La Bise aux hippies, Bonnie and Clyde and Contact, all featured prominently in the exhibit. Their artistic collaboration soon took on the form of an adulterous and scandalous affair at the Cité des Arts, Gainsbourgs home at the time, which led to the creation of the sulfurous duo Je taime moi non plus, an ode to physical love. Brigitte Bardot attempted to prevent its release, but only managed to delay it. The end of the affair a few months later inspired Gainsbourg in a moment of valor, captured forever on camera by Yves Lefebvre in the very beautiful Essai sur la naissance dune chanson. In 1968, accompanied by the arranger for the Rolling Stones, Arthur Greenslade, he recorded Initials B.B. in the Chappell Studios in London, a pure collage combining a deconstruction of Antón Dvoráks Symphony From the New World and a pastiche from The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe. In the song, Brigitte Bardot is glorified, exalted as an idol whose far-off image becomes blurry and disappears into the English fog. Louis Malles film Vie Privée depicts this poetic vision.
In September 1973, in the television broadcast of À bout portant, Gainsbourg declared: I am but a poet assassinated by a consumer society. If the 1960s marked the beginning of his collaboration with the record industry, they also equally underscored the ambiguity of his work, which oscillated between entertainment and the avant-garde, the use of commercial recipes for success and the quest for novelty, cynicism and sincerity.
III Decadance (1969 -1979 )
The international scandal provoked by the release of Je taime moi non plus, the first pornographic song ever written in the minor arts, recorded by Jane Birkin an octave higher than Brigitte Bardot, launched a ten-year period of intense innovation that fully transgressed the boundaries as musical as they were thematic of French pop music.
The fortuitous meeting of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin on the set of Slogan, as said by director Pierre Grimblat, was that of a secretive, irritating, caustic and ironic character and of a woman-child, a woman-flower, a simple creature, full of grace. The setup of the exhibit, by showing the screen tests of Marisa Berenson, favored for the role, and those of Jane Birkin, as well as a film clip, highlights the media-centered birth of the most sulfurous couple of the 1970s. A clip from a mockumentary, directed by Agnès Varda in 1987 and rarely broadcast, Jane B. par Agnès V., along with several slides, shows visitors Jane Blow-up Birkin, which inspired Serge Gainsbourg for five of his albums. In 1970, the director of Anna, Pierre Koralnik, wrote and directed a baroque and sensual thriller, Cannibis, devoted to the couple. The music, dedicated to Jimi Hendrix and Béla Bartók, was composed by Serge Gainsbourg and Jean-Claude Vannier, initiating a fruitful collaboration.
Serge Gainsbourg, with 69, année érotique and La Décadanse, exploited the sexual side of his relationship, to the point of making a promotional image of the couple, as shown in a photograph by Helmut Newton. Gainsbourg played on the twenty-year age difference between himself and Jane Birkin, and his references to Lolita and the nymphomaniac character of Humbert Humbert were suggestive in Jane B., as well as in the album LHistoire de Melody Nelson (1971) which narrates the story of a fatal love between a grown man and a young girl of fourteen autumns and fifteen summers. This album inaugurated in France, in the wake of Gérard Mansets La Mort dOrion, the idea of a concept-album with a musical and narrative ensemble.
The exhibit dedicates a large section to LHistoire de Melody Nelson by airing the video adaptation by Jean-Christophe Averty in its entirety and by projecting Tony Franks unedited photographs for the record cover. It was after this album, whose importance is apparent in light of his later work, that Gainsbourg effectively sparked the interest of the public and the rock and roll press, described as not just a music genre, but a personality ethic. From this point forward, Gainsbourg played the role of a dandy, invigorated by his own public image, the transgression of conventional values and the favor of art over life. This behavior as a dandy is reflected in one of the most beautiful designs of the 1970s: lhôtel particulier on rue de Verneuil. It was in this black-walled universe, reminiscent of Salvador Dalis apartment in Paris, that Gainsbourg recreated a chamber of wonders worthy of Des Esseintes, the hero in À rebours by Huysmans. He demonstrated his taste for the works of Paul Klee and Dali, 19th century furniture and the felted atmosphere of decadent interiors. The houses staircase was decorated by what Gainsbourg wanted to be the stations of the cross with photos of Marilyn, which leads to a photo of her dead body in the morgue and then to a library jumbled with anatomical dictionaries, doctors manuals and collections of poetry. The installation on rue de Verneuil betrays Gainsbourgs self-obsession, still fostered by his first training as a painter, which found its most complete form of expression in 1976 through the film production of Je taime moi non plus. By announcing: my cynical writing is not a style but a vision, Gainsbourg established himself as an image-maker. The aesthetic quality of his film, featured in the exhibit, is inspired by David Hockneys hyperrealist compositions for the saturated blue of the sky, and by those of Edward Hopper for his use of depth of field and a wideangle lens.
By means of his three concept albums, Serge Gainsbourg intensified the expression of his favorite themes: Vu de lextérieur (1973) focuses on scatology, Rock Around the Bunker (1975), assisted by the voice of Clara Torry, who participated in Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd, deals with the rockabilly style of Nazi perversions, and LHomme à Tête de chou (1976) centers on threesomes and passionate murder. Serge Gainsbourg, through his preference for somber subjects, followed the American tradition of Berlin by Lou Reed.
In 1977, French punk, more mundane and literary than in English, wanting to reinvent life, found in Gainsbourgs music a provocative yet sophisticated universe. The album Rock Around the Bunker became a part of the retro wave of the 1970s, which cultivated a cynical and perverse fascination with Nazisim, calling to mind as much Les Damnés by Visconti as the aesthetic quality of Fassbinder and Ingrid Caven, and above all heralding the future provocations of punks. Gainsbourg featured two portraits on his Steinway: one of Chopin, and the other of Sid Vicious. It was this paradoxical combination of high culture and low culture that attracted the group Bijou, which covered Les Papillions noirs, and the columnist from Libération, Alain Pacadis, whose dual interview with Serge Gainsbourg published in Façade was an indicator of this new revelation. Gainsbourg abandoned the stage in the 1960s to devote himself to his in-studio creations in the decade that followed, his films and [his] books
[his] artistic side; it was the new wave of rock that prompted him once again to take the stage,before becoming a national icon.
IV Ecce Homo (1979 1989)
The final part of the exhibit focuses on the 1980s, which, for Serge Gainsbourg, made way for a grand gesture on a political scale this time. The reggae version of La Marseillaise solidified his position as a dynamic iconoclast similar to Jimi Hendrix with The Star Spangled Banner and the Sex Pistols with God Save the Queen.
At the end of the 1970s, Serge Gainsbourgs artistic director, Philippe Lerichomme, organized a meeting with Bob Marleys musicians, Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare and his back-up singers, the I Three, in Kingston, Jamaica, allowing for the release of Aux Armes etc. A large portion of the exhibit space is devoted to the congregation of these different talents, to the Rastafarian culture that Gainsbourg helped promote in France and the scandal that it provoked. Unseen photographs from 1979 of Lord Snowdown and Philippe Lerichomme, documented by images that invite us into the reverie of Bob Marley, Negusa Nagast and Haile Salassie, and those of the mythic concert at the Palace, with a décor created by Gérard Garouste, attest to the journey of the singer and his return to live performances. Two audiovisual documents from the INA archives also evoke the significant events following the broadcast on the waves of Aux Armes etc.: the parachutists in Strasbourg in 1980 and Gainsbourgs auction bid for the original manuscript of Rouget de Lisle in 1981.
The importation of reggae into French music gave way to a second album in 1981, Mauvaises Nouvelles des étoiles, produced by the same team of artists and recorded in Chris Blackwells mythic studio in Nassau, which solidified the beginning of Serge Gainsbourgs mixing of cultures, already generic in the 1980s. One can think of the song Bana Basadi Balalo in the Bantu dialect, and of the Talking Heads from the same period. Gainsbourgs new fascination for Africa and its eurhythmics, after having experimented with different forms of reggae, lead him back to blues and jazz. He worked with old references from his jazz years, such as Billy Holiday and Louis Armstrong, in Gloomy Sunday, Amour sans amour or Vieille Canaille. In 1982 he directed for television a pastiche in black and white, Scarface 82, with Daniel Duval and Jane Birkin, based on Scarface (1932) by Howard Hawks. In film, his second feature-length work, Équateur, with Barbara Sukowa (one of Fassbinders muses) and Francis Huster, filmed in Africa and based on Georges Simenons novel, Coup de lune, uses the sadistic tyranny exercised by European colonists on the natives as a backdrop. The back-lighting of his photography copies that of 1940s Hollywood films: Tay Garnetts Le Facteur sonnetoujours deux fois (1946) and Schoendsacks King Kong (1949), of which two film clips are featured in the exhibit.
In 1984, Gainsbourg recorded Love on the Beat at the legendary Power Station of New York with Billy Rush, having not been able to get Nile Rogers, the producer of David Bowies Lets Dance. This electro-funk album allowed him to collaborate once again with William Klein, who designed a very subversive record cover, where Gainsbourg is dressed in the same style as Andy Warhol. The album crudely deals with incest, homosexuality and drugs. Gainsbarre, a media alter-ego and voluntarily deviant from Serge Gainsbourg, was born. Like Ubu for Alfred Jarry or Rrose Sélavy for Marcel Duchamp, Gainsbarre was a character of transference, an anti-hero, who reflected an image lacking complacency for society by defying its taboos.
The 1980s, a time of a mixing of cultures, genres and styles, were signature years for Gainsbourg. As a director, he wrote songs for actresses Isabelle Adjani, who sang Beau oui comme Bowie, and Catherine Deneuve, photographed by Helmut Newton for the cover of his album. Serge Gainsbourg is credited for titles sung by Vanessa Paradis, from which the clip Tandem is directed by Jean-Baptiste Mondino. Gainsbourg could also guarantee the artistic quality of advertisements: with Gini, for example, he was recognized for his mastery of writing slogans, while his photographs of Bambou, published under the title Bambou et les poupées, divulged the erotic fantasies similar to the surrealist visions of Hans Bellmer.
But beyond Gainsbarres media and audiovisual mask, Serge Gainsbourg discovered himself with all seriousness in underground cinema. Music is my trade; film and books, my artistic side. Despite the critics perplexity and the Nabokovian ambiguity of their theme, Charlotte for Ever (1987) remains a declaration of love for his daughter and Stan the Flasher (1990) expresses the suffering of an ugly esthete. At the end of the exhibit, the images of the Sacré grand-père Michel Simon (with whom Gainsbourg began his film career) and his confessions on Henry Chapiers couch reveal a panel of modest emotions, though always repressed.
Serge Gainsbourg, like Andy Warhol at the end of his life, manipulated his image in the media, while cultivating in the privacy of rue de Verneuil a pronounced taste for classic culture, combining otium and negotium, the interdisciplinary nature of his talents and the desire to make a masterpiece of his life.