Every city's underground system tells you something about the city's soul. There are clues in the décor (drab in London; too, too marvellous in Moscow), in the behaviour of the crowds, in the tunes the buskers play. Most of all, though, there are clues in the posters. Recently the Paris Métro has been plastered with images of the French semiotician Roland Barthes (1915-80) sitting on a stool, his fingers laced together, the suggestion of a smile on his rubbery lips. He might resemble Rodin's Thinker (1889), if the Thinker woke up one morning and decided that thinking was, you know, kind of fun. The poster's an ad for an exhibition at the Pompidou Centre that's billed as an 'intellectual biography of Barthes'. The first time I saw it - tired and hungry at the Gare du Nord - two thoughts swam into my mind. The first (predictably) was 'only in Paris'. The second (surprisingly) was about Alan Partridge, Steve Coogan's superb comic creation.
In an early episode of the BBC's Knowing Me, Knowing You (1995) Partridge, a Triassic-era TV personality, interviews a Parisian chef. Slumped on a leatherette sofa, the Frenchman boasts that his bistro - 'The Restaurant With No Name' - counts Jacques Derrida among its customers. Partridge doesn't know Derrida from Dolly Parton, so the chef patiently explains that he is 'the most famous philosopher in the world'. Clearly floundering, Partridge disagrees, claiming that Peter Ustinov is planet Earth's premier philosophe. The gag works, of course, because - having grown up with the semiotext(e) series and theory-heavy humanities syllabuses - we're pretty familiar with French maîtres à penser, and can see that Coogan is dropping Derrida's name as a sign of a snazzy, up-to-the-minute mode of thought, a world away from Partridge's provincial mindset. But while the stupidity of the British petit bourgeoisie is one of Coogan's targets, the French cult of the philosopher is another. (Where, apart from Paris, would a chef fawn over a frou frou academic?) The Beaubourg's Barthes exhibition was, in a sense, a sign of this cult reaching critical mass - an exercise in hagiography that was half Post-Structuralist hall-of-fame, half Parc Astérix.
The exhibition began with a logo, R/B, glowing in white light on a black background. Its design owed a debt to S/Z (1970), Barthes' book about Honoré de Balzac's Sarrasine (1830). In this study Barthes claims that texts are constantly reinterpreted or rewritten in the mind of the reader, making a mockery of authorial intent. Was the R/B device an abdication of curatorial responsibility? Perhaps, but - fading in and fading out - it was also an attempt to counter the most obvious criticism of the show: that Barthes, the brain behind La mort de l'auteur (The Death of the Author, 1968), is a bad subject for a biographical blockbuster. Mostly, however, the exhibition's curators seemed sanguine about its internal contradictions - the autobiographical Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes (1975), after all, gave them room to manoeuvre - happy to mix and match his papers and his possessions, works of art he analysed with works of art (premiered here) by Barthes himself.
Walking around the show, it was hard work identifying its weirdest moment. Was it the photos of Barthes gulping down Gauloise smoke, enlarged to look like pre-PC Gap ads? Was it peering at the correspondence of his fellow philosophes (Derrida's handwriting was all angles, while Gilles Deleuze's was so girly that he might as well have dotted his 'i's with hoops or hearts)? Was it the odd curatorial connections (Barthes' hand-drawn map of Tokyo's Shinjuku seemed chained, via the absent Broadway Boogie Woogie of 1943, to a couple of Piet Mondrian canvases)? At times the show suffered from a terrible literalism. Many of the objects Barthes mentions in Mythologies (1957) glowered in glass cases - boxes of soap powder, Guides Bleus, plastic bits-and-bobs. Nearby, the chassis of a 'Déesse' illustrated The New Citroen (1957), nowadays more of a nostalgic motorist's dream than a 'new Nautilus'. To a certain cast of mind this reification may have said something about semiotics, but it seemed to turn Mythologies into a poppy postwar expo. Thankfully, the loan of Einstein's Brain (1957) seemed to have been refused.
Aside from his unpublished papers - over which several Parisians hovered, pens in hand - Barthes' paintings were the show's unique selling point. Thirty untitled works were pinned behind a pane of Perspex. A handful were daubed on notepaper from the École Pratique des Hautes Études (Barthes' place of employment until 1976); aside from a single flower study, all of them were abstracts. Although Barthes was a fan of Archimboldo, Cy Twombly and Anne-Louis Girodet, his art works feel strangely samey - vague, oblong grids overlaid with playful passages of paint. Despite their art-historical antecedents - there are traces of Mondrian and Henri Matisse and Morris Louis too - it's hard to get a purchase on Barthes' paintings. Perhaps it's because he was such a practised semiotician that they're almost entirely empty. Leafing through his literary work, they seem to correspond most closely with a passage on film from Le Plaisir du Texte (The Pleasure of Text, 1973), written at roughly the same time that he opened his paint box: 'In fact, it is enough for the cinema to capture the sound of speech close up (that is, in fact, the generalized definition of the "grain" of writing) and make us hear in their materiality, their sensuality, the breath, the gutturals, the fleshiness of the lips, a whole presence of the human muzzle (let the voice, the writing, be fresh, supple, lubricated, delicately granular and vibrant as an animal's muzzle), for it to succeed in carrying the signified far, far away from us, and in casting, so to speak, the anonymous body of the actor into my ear: it granulates, it crackles, it caresses, it grates, it cuts, it comes: that is bliss.' Exchange 'speech' for painting, and Barthes' art starts to make sense.
Near the exhibition's exit there was - inevitably - a blown-up photo of Barthes' mother, Henriette, the main subject of Camera Lucida (1980), his last, elegiac work. She stands on a beach, a desultory donkey in the background. Faced with its bleached-out whiteness, its historical weight, I couldn't help but be moved and work back, as Barthes wrote, 'through a life, not my own, but the life of someone I love'. This, though, wasn't my mythology, it was Barthes', and that, it seems, was what the show was all about. In 1957 the semiotician penned a deceptively simple passage: 'Is there a mythology of the mythologist? No doubt.' It's something that the Pompidou Centre should have scrawled above its door.
First published in Issue 73