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A spiritual je ne sais quoi

Arts life: Paris An exhibition at the Centre Pompidou argues that religion didn't die out with the rise of secular society.

In a labyrinthine exhibition that goes from such­ ­notions as the solitude of man, to profanation via the Apocalypse, Eden and paganism, the Centre Pompidou argues that religion didn't die out with the Enlightenment, Nietzsche, science or the rise of secular society. Rather, it postulates that spirituality has continued to fuel artistic creation. The exhibition takes in the whole of the 20th century and all media, from oil paintings to installation art and video, architectural models and film clips. From the start, the show ­launches into unusual confrontations with a thickly encrusted black triptych by Damien Hirst, Forgive Me God for I have Sinned, hung alongside paintings by Caspar David Friedrich and Edvard Munch.

It is refreshing to see the Centre Pompidou return to the sort of broad thematic show that made its reputation when it opened 30 years ago. Here, the Centre bravely tackles a subject that goes against all ­formalist readings of art history, of modernity, avant-garde movements and art for art's sake. But you can't help concluding that the curators, Jean de Loisy, Angela Lampe and Alfred Pacquement (the director of the Musée National d'Art Moderne), got so carried away in their enthusiasm that they were unable to resist putting everything in, to the risk of becoming a catch-all for, well, just anything. We appear to be told that Brancusi's Bird in Space and an Arp relief are part of a spiritual quest, but also that Paul Chan's shadow theatre, Diaghelev's Ballets Russes and Picasso's ­Minotaur, Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty and, more disturbingly, Him, Maurizio Cattelan's spooky little boy/Hitler mannequin are also part of the same journey. From behind, the Italian artist's tweed-suited sculpture appears to be a small kneeling child, but close up reveals a sinister black moustache. Is it spiritual or a provocative look at history and preconceptions?

The layout is both ­thematic and vaguely chronological. After wafting through Room 21, The Doors of Perception - a psychedelic 1960s time warp of hallucinations, flower power, pouffes and Peter Sedgely's optical video discs - the sacred suddenly veers from the loopy to the visceral in Room 22. Sacrifices, a brutal 1960s and 1970s Vienna actionist display, showcases Herman Nitsch's Passionfries, painted with real blood, and film of a performance by Marina Abramowicz, who took body art and self-mutilation to discomforting limits.

What is missing is the intellectual debate this show should have fuelled, bypassed in the sheer fatigue of 350 works by some 200 artists, and the ­cacophony of views in a catalogue written by a cast of millions. What do they mean by sacred in the first place? Is it about representing religion or personal cosmographies, an artistic search for metaphysical transcendence or art as a religion in itself? While many works suggest a thesis more ­inclined to personal ­metaphysics, others address established religions: the symbolism of the cross in Joseph Beuys or Maurice Denis, Matisse's wonderfully simple black line drawing of St Dominic for the Chapelle de Vence, a video on Sufi mysticism by Yazid Oulab and Nam June Paik's Buddhas.

I'm not sure I came out any the wiser, but there are some extraordinary pieces here: a chance to see powerful landscapes by August Strindberg, Otto Dix's drawings of the First World War, the rediscovery of Etienne Martin's Coat, a different facet of Anish Kapoor in his mysterious crystal block Proposal for a New Model of the Universe and the characteristically oddball and winsome dice installation by Robert Filliou - a circle of 5000 scattered, coloured dice, which on inspection are all numbered one.

Surprisingly, perhaps the most worthwhile aspect of the show is the chance to discover some of art's singular figures. I never thought I'd become a fan of early 20th century spiritualism, but it's worth the visit just to discover the giant obsessively detailed mandala-like canvas of Alexandre Lesage, a coal miner who at 35 had a vision telling him to take up painting. Equally engaging is the messianic self-portrait of the poet-artist Aleister Crowley, as well as the Swedish artist and clairvoyant Hilma Af Klint, who viewed her art as a form of spiritual medium which curiously seems to anticipate abstraction. These are three artists who have never fit into formalist histories of art in any case.

Traces of the Sacred is at the ­Centre Pompidou, Paris, until Aug 11 and at the Haus der Kunst, Munich, from Sept 19 until Jan 11.

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