Is Britain ready for Annette Messager? As a nation, we don't readily embrace French artists and thinkers, whom we like to stereotype as pretentious poseurs.
So what chance does Messager, the 65-year-old contemporary artist, who is about to enjoy her first major retrospective in this country at the Hayward Gallery in London, have of winning the affection of Britain's art-going public?
She is no stranger to the enigmatic statement, uttered with typically Gallic sangfroid. "I am the peddler of chimeras," she told an interviewer back in 1989, "the peddler of simian dreams, Arachnean delirium."
Perhaps such wilful obscurity explains why she has exhibited so infrequently in this country (her solo show Telling Tales toured London and Bristol in 1992, but that's pretty much it), and why next to nothing has been written about her in the mainstream British press.
And yet Messager is probably the most important European contemporary artist you've never heard of.
She is taken seriously not only across the Channel, but around the world. In 1995, New York's Museum of Modern Art mounted a retrospective of her work.
Ten years later, she became the first woman to represent France at the Venice Biennale ("It was an honour for art to have a woman at the French pavilion," she says), and won a Golden Lion for her sumptuous three-room installation based loosely on the story of Pinocchio (puppets and automata feature prominently in her work).
The exhibition coming to the Hayward has already been seen in Finland, Korea and Japan, as well as at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
When we meet in a café around the corner from the Hayward on London's South Bank, Messager comes across as modest, almost shy.
In tentative English spoken with a heavy French accent, she explains how her work has changed – "It is less about my identity, and more about the identity of the world" – before breaking off with a self-conscious shrug: "Mais… that's a little bit pretentious."
Born in 1943 in the small seaside town of Berck-sur-Mer in northern France, Messager grew up wanting to become a ballerina or a nun.
"I was a little bit mystical when I was younger," she says. "But my father, who was an architect, gave me a paintbrush and soon I was always doing painting."
In 1962, she enrolled at art school in Paris, but she spent most of her time at the movies, which have been a big influence on her work. "I am a fan of Hitchcock," she says. "I particularly like his use of close-ups."
After travelling in the mid-Sixties (she won a round-the-world airline ticket in a photography competition), she was swept up in the student riots that raged across Paris in 1968. "Everybody was saying that we should destroy the museums," she recalls, a mischievous glint flashing across her hazel eyes.
"There was a sense of new possibilities, of something new, for everybody, but especially for women. Previously, it had been very difficult to be a woman artist in France. Painting was a male occupation. To begin with, they ignored me. In a way, that wasn't so bad, because I could continue with my work and there was no pressure on me. Soon it was changing."
This awareness of the roles that French society prescribed for women permeated both the content and the form of her early work. In her ironic sampler My Collection of Proverbs (1974), for instance, Messager embroidered hundreds of misogynistic proverbs from all over the world in red, blue and green thread on white cloth.
Around this time, she made a lot of work that involved sewing and knitting – techniques that were inextricably associated with womanhood, and which had not previously been part of the province of high art.
"An artist must be brave," she tells me. "It's not worth working otherwise. You always have to break the rules a little bit.
"When I started out, I wanted to do many different things – drawing, photography, embroidery. And at that moment, the big thing was conceptual art, minimal art, which was the opposite of this. It was not me."
Another piece from the early Seventies, Voluntary Tortures, which will be shown at the Hayward, presents more than 50 clippings from newspapers and magazines in which women are pictured undergoing all sorts of grisly procedures to beautify themselves: smothering their bodies with depilatory lotions, applying suction pumps to their breasts, and squeezing their faces into menacing mechanical devices that look like medieval torture implements.
So is Messager a feminist? "I don't know what that word means," she says. "I am a woman. I am not against this kind of torture, I just show it."
In the Eighties, Messager entered a new phase as an artist. Whereas her earlier work had been intimate ("At the beginning," she recalls, "I was very shy"), slowly she began to construct installations that were less about her own identity, and more about the world around her.
In 1988, for the first time, she began to incorporate into her work stuffed toy animals and eerie taxidermy specimens of birds that she had bought at flea markets.
Over the next two decades, she presented these in an increasingly violent fashion: disembowelled, dismembered, impaled on pikes. She filled galleries with pelts and paws and suspended body parts, as though these creatures had been ripped to shreds in a toytown massacre.
These installations, several of which will be included in the Hayward retrospective, have a peculiar tone that is at once macabre and darkly funny, and is now seen as quintessentially her own.
"A lot of people say, 'Your work, oh it's so fun'," she says. "And others say, 'It's so dark, it's about death'. But it is both: it is funny and cruel at the same time. Life is like that. One moment, it's raining, and after that, there is sunshine.
"We are sad; then we are in dizzy spirits. We are in love. All the time, we are different."
She pauses, to order an espresso. "The only good thing about getting older is that you are more free. You don't care about people, about what they think, what art should be, must be; you don't care about fashion and art. And maybe, as a result, you are more yourself.
"The older I am, the more I want to play. Art shouldn't be fashionable at all. If just a few people can be moved or touched by an exhibition, that's already not so bad, that's fine."
Does this mean that her work can be difficult, that it appeals only to a minority? "What is contemporary is always difficult," she says. "The Impressionists were difficult."
Maybe that accounts for why she has shown so rarely in Britain?
"I don't know – you'll have to ask the English. In general, though, I like English culture, because it's so different. I love Blake, because he mixed drawings and writing together.
"The English are very bizarre," she concludes with a puckish grin, "and I like that."
- 'Annette Messager: The Messengers' is at the Hayward, London SE1 (0871 663 2519), from March 4
Set consisting of 15 pieces of embroidered fabric
Artist-collector and handywoman, Annette Messager has made nearly sixty “collection albums” between 1972 and 1974. Inspired by words, writings and images, the artist has created her albums from an accumulation of texts, photographs, notes and miscellaneous items, cautiously collected and sorted. Sometimes carefully glued in notebooks, sometimes gathered in bulk folders, Annette Messager’s albums all have a title, handwritten by the artist.
The albums are organized according to various themes, such as love life, encounters or domestic life and resemble sometimes a diary, a photo album or a recipe book. Les hommes que j’aime, Ma vie illustrée or Mon livre de cuisine are a few examples. Annette Messager assembles common, everyday items to create a work that is subtly both poetic and feminist.
Although the use of the personal pronoun suggests that the albums are autobiographical, they are works of fiction. They reveal the ironic fantasy life of a young woman embodying the archetype of the 60's housewife. This woman is not Annette Messager.