A British ‘national treasure’ abroad – Grayson Perry at the Monnaie de Paris
I’m not sure the one and only Grayson Perry would thank me for the ‘national treasure’ ticket, but it is meant as a genuine term of endearment. In times of political turmoil and constantly shifting sands, there is always something thoroughly dependable and thought-provoking about his no-airs-and-graces, self-deprecating vision of the world, which he has been translating into various forms of visual art form since the 1980s.
The Monnaie de Paris, France’s longest standing institution, seemed on paper to be an unlikely place to host an exhibition entitled “Vanité, Identité, Sexualité”, yet it feels strangely appropriate to have such a historical backdrop to the show. Sweeping views from the windows look out onto the Seine one way and grand courtyards on the other, and there is a real sense of place and occasion that marries well with Perry’s blend of tradition and modernity. This is also the place where the Euro stamps are coined, and in honour of the show a new medal has been created by the artist and signed by the institution – true entente cordiale at its best…
On the thorny subject of the Euro, Grayson asked the great British public back in 2017 to express their wishes, hopes, dreams and fears surrounding their initial reasons for having individually voted to leave or remain in the European Union. The perhaps surprisingly united findings of what has nevertheless divided a nation can be viewed in a fascinating 8-minute video on YouTube, and two years later the two “Matching Pair” vases he created for ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ are featured in what is a monumental moment in British history, part and parcel of the first major solo exhibition in France devoted entirely to this celebrated and compelling artist.
Plummeted to stardom as winner of the prestigious Turner Prize back in 2003, Perry has since been decorated with everything from the title of Royal Academician to being awarded the CBE on the Queen’s birthday honours list, and shows no signs of losing his stake as one of the most popular contemporary artists of his generation.
Say those two words together, “Grayson” and “Perry”, in fact, or even check out his Twitter feed, and a whole list of his vocations run off the tongue: conceptual and performance artist, potter, sculptor, broadcaster, author, lecturer, transvestite and even self-confessed ‘worshipper of teddy bears’ who ‘likes being on two wheels’. Best known in the early years for his outsized decorative pottery, most of his output seems to be the very essence of refinement on first appearance – until you take a closer look, when you realise they comment pretty forcefully on the unsettling cracks in the urn and within society.
As this exhibition demonstrates in each of the ten themes it covers, the rich and colourful details all share his acerbic, ironic reflections on universal questions that affect us all, whether he is working with ceramic or metal, and with tapestries or with vases or other mediums. There is something inherently very British about every piece on display, so you might imagine some elements will be lost in translation on the Quai de Conti, but this definitely doesn’t seem to be the case, gathering by the comments that can be overheard as we move from room to room.
‘That dress’ worn by the artist when he won the coveted Turner prize is showcased at the beginning of the exhibition, and so it’s tempting to be on the lookout at every turn for hints of the character that the art world used to address as Claire. As famous for his cross-dressing appearance as for his work, Perry lends a great deal of importance to the alternatives of traditional gender roles. No longer keen to be linked to an alter-ago, transvestitism these days is for him less about pretending to be a woman, and more to do with enjoying the feeling that wearing female clothes gives him.
His work therefore proposes a ‘new’ kind of masculinity: believing that men have lost their bearings as society has shifted, he encourages them to “lower their defences” and move away from stereotypical, ofttimes violent reactions and behaviour, in favour of embracing equality and adopting more female qualities like caring and sharing. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but you can’t argue with that.
Much has been reported about Grayson’s famously documented and very unhappy childhood, resulting in his retreat into an imaginary world where his now raggedy teddy bear became a kind of symbolic father figure and can be spotted in many of his tapestries and bronze sculptures. Named Alan Measles after the best friend who lived next door and with whom he bonded when he fell ill aged three (with the measles, of course), the bear has gone on to represent all the qualities of a less aggressive, more empathetic male role. He can be conquering hero, elderly wise man or even a kind of god in this brave new world.
Nowhere is this more apparent than when you turn the corner and come upon the outrageously brightly painted Patience/Humility motorbike, a sort of psychedelic ‘Pope-mobile’ glass shrine to the furry deity. The teddy reclining on the back seat is clearly not Alan himself, but it’s easy to envisage the two genuine articles setting off on their pilgrimage across Europe together as they did in 2016.
In addition to the madly eccentricity sides to Perry’s character, many of the tapestries on display evoke the big themes of social class and taste. Less autobiographical in recent years, his more recent works comment on what he sees happening in the world around him, from the larger screen down to more domestic observations of everyday life. Every piece without exception is visually arresting and seductive, and you can tell he really enjoys the idea of being an Ambassador for a certain sort of Britishness every time.
Judging by the crowds, the favourites at the show appear to be the mammoth computer-generated “Comfort Blanket” and “Battle of Britain” tapestries towards the end of the exhibition. The former is a kind of portrait of a nation, based on a £10 bank note bearing an aunt-like rendition of the Queen (you can almost see the freshly removed hair curlers) and setting odes to middle-class green wellies, The Archers series and Aga cookers set alongside allotments, white vans and mentions of fish and chips. Lest you take your patriotism too seriously, though, weaved phrases like“moaning” and “come off it!” rub shoulders with a Who’s Who list of other notable National Treasures such as Monty Python, Elizabeth the First, Agatha Christie and Helen Mirren.
Illustrious company indeed, and a strong contrast with the textless imaginary ‘edgeland’ or in-between place not unlike the Essex landscape on the opposite wall. No words are needed here and the humour is much harder to find: the country is clearly carved up, polluted and barren, and despite the optimistic rainbow it looks as though there is a pestilence en route to the Eurotunnel. It’s an emotive vision, deliberately setting out to get under your skin.
Like the rest of Grayson Perry’s work, it’s edgy and unsettling, and you come away from the show feeling a trace of sadness and nostalgia for what you sense may never be quite the same again, yet still hopeful that as with his ‘Matching Pair’ there may be still be much to unite us all in the future. Vive la Grande Bretagne…
The Grayson Perry exhibition runs at the Monnaie de Paris until February 3. For assistance with tickets and help planning your itinerary, please contact us here (EMAIL LINK) for more details and find more information on our website page.
All photos by Nicola Collarile unless otherwise indicated.