Paris has amazing museums and going to museums there is one of our favorite activities. Although we didn’t go to every museum on every visit, this 3.5 week trip gave us more time than usual to explore many new ones, as well as returning to a number of our favorites.
Paris has so many museums that we don’t know where to begin. So let’s start with some of the city’s premier art museums.
This museum is, depending on your view, either a piece of art itself or an eyesore. The reason? All of the building’s infrastructure is on the outside for all to see (rather than being buried in the buildings’ bowels). The public sees its skeletal supports, escalators, elevators, air, water and power ducts. And if this weren’t enough, each element is painted in bright colors to ensure it gets your attention. Not that this is entirely an attention-grabbing gimmick, though. There is also a practical reason as it opens the interior to maximize the possible viewing space.
And all this space is needed to accommodate art of the 20th century, from Matisse and Picasso, to Miro and Calder, Pollock and Lichtenstein, through many more artists between and after these masters. And this is not even to mention all the research and restoration facilities, the administrative offices and so forth.
But before you even get inside, you are distracted (pleasantly) by street performers and by the fun at the Stravinsky fountain.
We began on the sixth floor with a large temporary exhibit of work by Mona Hatoun. This installation examines how politics and society exercise control over individuals and the connections and conflicts among these forces. We couldn’t get excited by many of the works, such as a video of a colonoscopy or the photo of a sheep testicle hanging in a butcher shop. We did, however, find some of her works to be interesting. These included a map of the world created by acrylic blocks a globe with the continents formed by neon lights and her Van Gogh’s Back, a photo of a man’s back with long hair shaped as the flows of light in the artist’s “Starry Night” painting.
The History and Foundations of Modern Art
Then down to the fifth floor to see the most important part of the museum’s permanent collection, which covers the primary artistic styles and schools that emerged between 1905 and 1960. The overview began with a few works by Kandinsky, Chagall and Roussault and suggests how these artists presaged the century’s long-term trend toward abstractionism. It then provides a high-level overview of the most important (and some of the lesser important) approaches to art that helped to reshape the ways in which all types of artists, architects and designers have viewed and represented the world (not to speak of ideas, senses, and emotions) and art ever since.
The richest parts of the displayed collection were those of the two most important and influential artistic movement of the century’s move away from literal portrayal of objects to communicate ideas and emotions. These were:
- Matisse, whose creation of Fauvism relied on color, rather than figuration to portray ideas, as within his use of color cut-outs to represent a cathedral’s stained glass windows (a work he considered to be his greatest masterpiece); and
- Picasso and Braque (and to a lesser extent, others including Legar and Chagall) who pioneered Cubism as a new way of visualizing and portraying three-dimensional images.
The museum also provides a nice representation of Surrealism, returning to the importance of Kandinsky and other’s growing use of color rather than figures to express spiritual ideas and ideals; and then the Bauhaus school’s approach to functionalism, which stripped away extraneous elements and details to focus on the function of a building or a piece of furniture, or the idea being conveyed in a painting. While this movement was led by Walter Gropius, it depended heavily on teachers including Paul Klee and again, Kandinsky.
It then briefly explained and portrayed work representative of a number of other less influential, less long-lasting movements. These included Constructivism (which provided commentaries on consumerism and mass production), Kinetic art (representing movement in still images), Nouveau Realism (a brief inter-war return to semi-realism), Fluxis (art that changes the use of pre-made objects).
The museum is less comprehensive in its treatment of a few schools that arguably merit more attention. It mentions and provides little real context for and few examples of styles such as Pop (which does draw somewhat on fields including Constructivism and Fluxus), Abstractionism and especially Abstract Expressionism.
Then, after a walk through the lovely outdoor sculpture pool, which features work of Jean Arp, it was down to the fourth floor—the second section of the permanent collection that is devoted to contemporary art.
Although we have a couple minor qualms with the way the Pompidou handled the history of modern art, we appreciated the sequencing and the explanations of, and the connections it drew among different artistic movements. Although we certainly found a number of interesting pieces and appreciated some of the cataloging of approaches to contemporary art, the display appeared to us to be somewhat random. True, much of the work did provide some form of social commentary, as around the evils of war, torture and persecution. This said, some of the distinctions the museum posed among History, Archival and Documentary Art were lost on us. Many of them, at least by the selection, if not necessarily the representation of the subject led us to think of them as Activist Art, which the museum presented as a distinct category.
Nor could we fully appreciate the John Cage-inspired Sound Art. This said, we did enjoy Olafur Eliasson’s exploration of light and color and a few of the different exhibits that explored the confusion of image and reality and the artistic manipulation of truth, as with perspective and the digital manipulation of images. These included a Valerie Belin exhibition of photos of super-models that made them appear almost like mannequins and some images of Michael Jackson that made one question whether they were real representations of manipulations. At the opposite end of gallery, another exhibit, that portrayed familiar urban scenes with all of the words and lettering removed, makes one question the source of the information we get and the relative ease of manipulating a viewer’s impressions and ideas.
We also appreciated the conflicts and contrasts inherent in Shadi Ghadirian’s images of traditionally attired Iranian women holding relatively contemporary consumer goods and appliances, such as boom boxes and vacuum cleaners. And, while we didn’t have a clue as to the true meaning, we also enjoyed Wilfredo Prieto’s “Avalanche”, a sculpture of dozens of balls (often with some type of commercial symbol or meaning), arranged in a long line from the smallest, to the largest, as if they progressively accumulate mass (and presumably some type of commercial manipulative effect) as they aggregate.
But just because you’ve finished admiring or despising the building and exploring the exhibits inside, does not mean you’re done. A visit would not be complete without a visit to the Brancusi Workshop—a reconstruction of the studio that contains more than 200 of the artist’s sculptures (primarily works in progress) and tools, along with thousands of photos (few of which are simultaneously on display) in four rooms. Interesting, but less satisfying (at least to us) than seeing a handful of the artist’s finished works.