Jean Genet, The Great Escape
Mucem, fort Saint-Jean—
Fort Saint-Jean Georges Henri Rivière Building (GHR) 320 m2
From Friday 15 April 2016 to Monday 18 July 2016
It has been thirty years since the death of Jean Genet, one of the most flamboyant and most rebellious of twentieth century writers. The Mucem is paying tribute to this poet of freedom and foreign lands, who began his work in prison and finished on the banks of Jordan. The exhibition is rooted in this region that he loved more than any other, the Mediterranean: the point of exit from Europe and entry into Africa and the Middle East. Like the magnetic pole of his trajectory, the Mediterranean offered Genet the chance for a “great escape”.
This is the story of a man who, from the age of thirteen, burned to leave Europe and France. He wanted to go to Egypt, the Middle East, Algeria, and Africa. “My childhood, he said, dreamed of palm trees”. But he dreamed too hard, ran away, swindled, escaped, joined the army and deserted, and finally stole. Arrested, brought back to Paris, he was placed in a reformatory, and then in prison.
He was a delinquent, a man without ties, without father nor mother, without place or country, without hearth or home, but he had a weapon: the French language. In his prison cells at La Santé and Fresnes, with only a primary school certificate and a grammar book, he began to write his first poems, his first novels. With his abandoned childhood, his solitude, his prisons, his memories of drifting miserably through Spain and Europe, always searching for someplace else, with the disaster of his life, he composed one of the most incendiary bodies of work in French literature, finding in poetry a homeland without borders: “France,” he wrote in The Thief’s Journal, “is an emotion communicated from artist to artist”.
Albert Dichy, literary director of the Institut Mémoires de l’Édition Contemporaine (IMEC)
Emmanuelle Lambert, writer, editor of the exhibition catalogue (co-edition Mucem-Gallimard)
Scenography : Olivier Bedu, Struc Archi
In partnership with the Institut Mémoires de l’Édition Contemporaine (IMEC).
With the participation of the La Fondation d’Entreprise La Poste, sponsor of the exhibition catalogue.
The exhibition explores Genet’s real and imaginary wanderings, from his first adolescent escapes to the South, to the end of his life in Morocco. Writing, vagrancy, commitments, friendships and
testimonies are all gathered here around the figure of the only artist that Genet ever admired: Alberto Giacometti.
Genet on the move
The exhibition invites visitors to follow Genet’s trajectory through three halls that surround L’Homme qui Marche by Giacometti, considered today to be one of the most important sculptures of the twentieth century. Placed at the centre, it is accompanied by two other works by Giacometti: his famous Portrait de Jean Genet, from the collections of the Centre Pompidou, and a pencil drawing of Genet’s head.
Placing this unique relationship between Genet and Alberto Giacometti at the heart of the exhibition, is a reminder that the three areas of work presented here, reflecting the adventures of the thief, the playwright and the political activist, are only articulated, nurtured, and connected by a profound relationship with art. It was as an artist and a poet that Genet traversed delinquency, the theatre, the black ghettos of America and the Palestinian camps of Jordan and Lebanon.
The commissioners chose to address the literary part of the exhibition by entering into Genet’s territories through his books, punctuating the itinerary with three masterpieces each anchored in a Mediterranean region: The Thief’s Journal, The Screens and Prisoner of Love. Together, they traverse Genet’s life, the literary genres that he tackled and turned upside down, and his geographies of choice – Spain, North Africa and the Middle East. They outline his attempt to escape from the western world while giving literature some of its finest books.
The three manuscripts of his major works, as well as the first notes for Four Hours in Shatila and the incredible scriptural device La Sentence are gathered and presented in showcases at the centre of each hall whose walls refer, in turn, outside and to the context of the work. There are of works by artists, period photographs, biographical documents presented for the first time, elements of historical contextualisation as well as filmed testimonies.
The itinerary of the exhibition is organised around three themes, each of which intersects a key moment of Genet’s life, with one of his works, and a Mediterranean territory:
— The Thief’s Journal - Spain
Hall 1 focuses on The Thief’s Journal a book that recounts Genet’s years of running away, drifting, desertion and theft, and which is bathed in the light of Spain. The exhibition begins with the circumstances of Genet’s birth: the original and heart-breaking letters from Genet’s mother, when abandoning her son against her will to public assistance have been recently recovered. A wall of images and archives outlines the biographical journey of Genet through the social services, child psychiatry, the courts, the army, the military justice and health systems, the prisons and finally, the central intelligence agency– tracing the movement that led Genet from public assistance to the cells where he began writing.
Documents include the very first letter written by Genet to the public assistance authorities, his runaway records and the report of the psychiatrist at the military prison at Fort Saint Nicolas in Marseille (opposite Fort Saint Jean at the Mucem where the exhibition takes place) where Genet was incarcerated then tried for desertion in 1938.
A work by Ernest Pignon-Ernest, who exceptionally agreed to install it in the interior of the exhibition, pays tribute to Genet’s early years
— The Screens - Algeria
Hall 2 ushers visitors into the theatre of Genet through what remains both one of the most important plays of our time and one of the greatest theatre scandals of the twentieth century: the Parisian production of The Screens.
When Roger Blin and Jean-Louis Barrault staged the play at the Odéon-Théâtre de France, it had only been four years since the end of the Algerian War. And although never specifically mentioned by name, the drama was nonetheless perceived as an ode to the Algerian revolution. Costume sketches created by André Acquart, photographs of the production and the demonstrations in front of the Odéon, testimonies filmed by Jean-Louis Barrault and Maria Casarès, who played the Mother, surround one of the very first versions of the manuscript as well as the working copies of Roger Blin and Genet. The Screens was the culmination of Genet’s theatrical trajectory before his disappearance and escape from the literary scene that lasted twenty-five years.
— Prisoner of Love - Palestine
The third hall is dedicated to the to the final phase of Genet’s life, lasting fifteen years: his support of the Black Panthers in the United States, and above all, the Palestinians. These experiences provided the poetic material for his final great work discovered in the hotel room where Genet died and which was perhaps the happiest of all his books, Prisoner of Love. The manuscripts of La Sentence and Prisoner of Love, presented for the first time along with brochures from the Black Panther Party and the Groupe d’Information sur les Prisons (GIP), are framed by two walls, one of photographs and the other of videos. Here reporting on the Palestinian camps in Jordan by the photographer Bruno Barbey in the 1970s for the review Zoom with commentary by Genet is opposite televised reports on the massacres of Palestinian civilians at Sabra and Shatila. There is also video work by Carole Roussopoulos showing Genet reading a text in support of Angela Davis, as well as testimonies from those close to him including Leïla Shahid, with whom Genet, the first western witness to the massacres, entered the Shatila camp. A photograph by the artist Didier Morin, showing Genet’s grave in the small Spanish cemetery of Larache, in northern Morocco, on the outer edge of the western world where the poet of the century’s last revolutions found his final refuge, concluding the Genet adventure.
Lastly, a projection room offers visitors in its entirety of one of the very rare filmed interviews that Genet granted: shot in Greece by Antoine Bourseiller shortly before his death, Genet reflects on the major episodes of his life: his childhood, the Mettray penal colony, his relationships with Giacometti, the Black Panthers and the Palestinians. It provides a recapitulation in images and in words of the entire exhibition itinerary.