“The Beat Generation, that was a vision that we had … in the late forties, of a generation of crazy, illuminated hipsters suddenly rising and roaming America, serious, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere, ragged, beatific, beautiful in an ugly graceful new way – a vision gleaned from the way we had heard the word ‘beat’ spoken on street corners on Times Square and in the Village, in other cities in the downtown city night of post-war America – beat, meaning down and out but full of intense conviction.”
– Jack Kerouac, “Aftermath: The Philosophy of the Beat Generation”, Esquire, March 1958.
“Beat” perpetuated the romantic, bohemian myth of the lost generation. Jack Kerouac added a contemplative subtlety to it: in “beat”, he said, we should also hear the word “beatitude”. And of course, “beat” also reflects the rhythm of jazz and the Bebop culture that inspired the prosody, rhythm and improvisatory techniques of Beat poetry.
With its new exhibition, Centre Pompidou celebrates the Beats – Burroughs, Ginsberg, Kerouac, and the literary and artistic movement that was born with their meeting in the 1940s. The movement that scandalised the then-puritan America for its rejection of Western scientism, technological ideals, racism and homophobia and heralded an era of cultural and sexual liberation in the sixties, is now considered to be amongst the most important cultural movements of the 20th century.
With The Beat Generation, Centre Pompidou maps the geographical shifts and ever-changing contours of the beatnik movement with a focus on the precise historical period of 1944 to 1969. The exhibition also makes a few incursions into contemporary times, for example with Allen Ruppersberg’s installation Singing Posters (2003-05) which is directly inspired by, and provides a phonetic transcription of, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl.
With a deliberate use of “low tech” media and means of reproduction (vinyl discs on turntables, slide projectors, 16mm film projectors), the exhibition seeks to illustrate the profound influence that the Beat Generation had on the development of today’s countercultures and subcultures. With its unequivocal defence of freedom of expression, the movement celebrated the breaking down of boundaries between cultures and artistic disciplines and directly inspired the events of May 1968 in France, the protests against the Vietnam war, and the countercultures of the sixties.
The exhibition is divided into three main subtitles, New York, San Francisco and Paris, with two smaller sections dedicated to Mexico and Tangier. The curators thus follow the changing geographic locations of the Beat movement, as a testament to the essential and constant need to move that underpinned Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (the 36.6m original scroll is on display in its entire length at the exhibition) and the rest of the Beat Generation.
With New York, the exhibition traces the growth of the Beat movement that started with the meeting of Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg at Columbia University in 1944. Reviews of the Beat writers’ works are given a prominent place in this section, along with photographs of theatre and jazz venue, Village by Fred W. McDarrah. 1959 film Pull My Daisy, directed by Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie and with a jazzy voiceover by Kerouac, is the highlight of this section, as are his largely unknown paintings and drawings.
Focusing on the literary and artistic Beat scene between 1952 and 1965, the subtitle San Francisco explores the shift of the Beat movement to the North Beach district of California. The movement gravitated around Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights bookstore and publishing house and, for a short time at the Gallery Six on Fillmore Street, where Allen Ginsberg famously read his poem Howl in 1955, leading up to a highly publicised obscenity trial that paradoxically put the Beat writers on the map. The section features photographs, ephemera, historic documents, publications, manuscripts and sound recordings, emphasising on the collaborations between an avant-garde, transgressive group of artists, poets, writers and musicians.
Between 1957 and 1963, Paris became the chosen venue for this essentially nomadic movement: the “Beat Hotel” at Rue Gît-le-Coeur became the living quarter for Burroughs, Corso, Ginsberg, Orlovsky and Gysin. Paris became the spot for visual and sonic experimentation by the Beat generation. This was where Burroughs wrote the Naked Lunch and developed his cut-up technique that he used to produce his two novels, The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded. The section also features Harold Chapman’s photographs documenting the life at the Beat Hotel.
Along with the exhibition, Centre Pompidou is also organising a wide array of activities and events that include readings, concerts, discussions and film screenings that go on to highlight the interplay between literature, art and media that underlined the ethos of the Beat Generation. With a constant focus on both the visual and literary dimensions of the Beat movement, the exhibition is a heartening celebration of this mad, sub-culturist movement that shocked America and the rest of world seven decades ago.
The Beat Generation runs through October 3, 2016, at Centre Pompidou, Paris.
Where: Centre Pompidou, Place Georges-Pompidou, 75004 Paris
Dates: June 22 to October 3, 2016
Timings: Everyday from 11 am to 9 pm, except Tuesdays
Tariff: €14 (Full), €11-Free (Reduced)
More information: Centre Pompidou’s website