According to the philosopher André Comte-Sponville, the elusive notion of "joie de vivre", that fleeting sense of elation at the simple fact of being alive and present to the world, can be conjured even in the darkest of circumstances.
And so it is armed with a courageous flair for the counterintuitive that the Palais des Beaux Arts in Lille is defying the prevailing gloom with a large-scale exhibition surveying the various representations of happiness—or rather, those "fugitive moments" of happiness—in art, from Antiquity to the present.
The exhibition, organized with the Grand Palais and supported by loans from some of the world's most prestigious institutions, brings together a hundred works and nearly as many renowned figures of Art History. From Frans Hals to Renoir, or from Rodin to Murakami, the curators have chosen to develop a highly subjective theme-based progression instead of trying to chase the idea of happiness through the ages. This proves a wise approach, perhaps ideally suited to convey the kaleidoscopic, deeply personal nature of "joie de vivre". Thus, a first room is dedicated to the sun as a Western symbol of hedonism, and the radiant, enveloping light pervading Edvard Munch's 1907 Bathing Men (from the painter's Impressionist period) is presented alongside Roy Lichtenstein's minimal-pop Sunrise, an almost abstract optical explosion of blue against yellow from 1965.
From a room devoted to games to another invoking laughter or the exalted body, it is an emphasis on eclecticism that informs—and never quite overwhelms—this selection, bringing together wildly varying artistic forms with a curatorial focus that achieves a near-perfect balance between whimsy and relevance. At the heart of the exhibition, museum director and chief curator Bruno Girveau, unburdened by the hierarchies of the past, sheds light on unexpected links between Jan Brueghel and Guy Peellaert, two seemingly irreconcilable sides of the Flemish pictural tradition, separated by over four centuries and brought together in a room highlighting the theme of popular feasts in Northern Europe. Brueghel's delightful Wedding dance (1600) taking as its subject the jubilation of peasants momentarily abandoned to dance, finds a striking echo in Peellaert's Strawberry Fields, an airbrush-painted photomontage from 1970 in which the Beatles are shown outrunning the personifications of conservative England that are pursuing them, arms and legs stretched into an exaggerated motion reminiscent of folk dance, as if propelled by a contagious outburst of joy and freedom.
As Peellaert was starting work on the Rock Dreams series, this particular painting—ultimately discarded in favor of the hyperrealistic treatment that characterizes the series—was inspired by the sense of rapture that permeated the films of Richard Lester, who in the mid-1960s had directed the Beatles in several films based on a succession of short musical sequences that foreshadowed the advent of the music video. By combining the evocative powers of both music and visuals, an intoxicating new art form would be born, one hinted at throughout Rock Dreams, which aimed to create "music for the eyes" at a time when the printed image still had the ability to carry meaning and capture minds. In that perspective, a welcome presence in the exhibition is the famous "unauthorized" dance routine from the Fatboy Slim music video for the song Praise You, directed guerilla-style by Spike Jonze at the turn of the Twenty-first century, in which a group of formation dancers perform a strangely ecstatic dance routine to bemused crowds in the foyer of a California cinema.
By ignoring traditional art-historical approaches and juxtaposing a wide range of temperaments, "Joie de Vivre" fulfills its ambition : to ignite in the viewer, albeit for a brief moment of contemplation, a hint of that evasive emotion. Beyond time, place or medium, artists may not have provided a definition of happiness, but the best have revealed its universal nature.
"Joie de Vivre", until January 17th 2016, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille.