It is fascinating that for centuries people from the four corners of the world have been flocking to Paris just to see its art, making it to this day the most visited city in the world. It is even more intriguing that a single bestseller set in the Louvre—The Da Vinci Code—has had such an impact on readers that last year the museum’s attendance rose twenty-five percent.
It’s not just that the city harbors the world’s most famous artistic icons—the Mona Lisa, the Winged Victory, and the Venus de Milo, as well as some of the greatest paintings by Monet, Delacroix, Corot and Picasso, it also seems to have a staggering array of mega art shows that are put on regularly throughout the year.
This spring alone, the city boasts a major retrospective of the paintings and drawings of Jean-Dominique Ingres at the Louvre, a ground-breaking show of the paintings, etchings and drawings of Pierre Bonnard, an exhibition showing the artistic synergy between Picasso and his mistress Dora Maar, as well as a blockbuster show at the Musée d’Orsay highlighting the similarities between Pissarro and Cezanne to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Cézanne’s death. Because the lines for such exhibitions often have wait times of over an hour, it’s best to prebook your ticket for any one of them on the Internet if you are planning a trip to Paris any time soon.
Still, these stellar museum shows are only one aspect of the French capital’s artistic pre-eminence. If Paris continues to retain the top spot in the pantheon, to a large degree, it is due to the city’s ability to renew itself artistically. This year, the city’s stunning Petit Palais with its 18th and 19th century paintings collections and magnificent inner courtyard were unveiled to the public after six years of extensive restoration. Not only is the museum open to the public free of charge, but its collection of Beaux-Arts academic painters and Impressionist artists is well worth a detour.
This coming June, President Chirac will be inaugurating the Musee des Arts Premiers dedicated to early art produced in African, Central and South America, as well as in the Asia-Pacific region. Designed by the celebrated Jean Nouvel, the museum is going to be located in spitting distance from the Eiffel Tower, thus giving a whole new cultural dimension to an area that has sorely lacked museums. Moreover, it is the first time that a museum of this kind will open anywhere in Western Europe, and therefore should be a major draw.
It would also be a mistake to think that Paris is a city only dedicated to its glorious artistic past. Two years ago, the city opened the most avant-garde art museum in Western Europe, the Palais de Tokyo, which regularly shows conceptual and video art, not to mention performance art. Open six days a week from noon to midnight, it features a regular program of cutting-edge music, dance and politically charged art work. If you get on their electronic mailing list, you can be regularly updated on their current shows and guest exhibitions. The museum, whose interior décor of raw concrete and open overhead pipe work is a novel institution on the French museum scene, also features an excellent restaurant, Tokyo Eat, which spills over onto an outdoor terrace overlooking the Seine in summer.
The Centre Pompidou boasts the largest collection of Modernist and contemporary art in Western Europe, so extensive that the curators are forced change the paintings and sculpture on display every six months. The current show, BIG BANG, juxtaposes Modernist artists such as Matisse and Picasso with contemporary artists who are just coming into their own, thereby showing continuity between works of the 20th century and the current one.
Many people just queue up at the Pompidou for their mega art shows, often devoted to a single artist. Among the most memorable on view in recent years, were a wonderful retrospective on the semi-abstract painter Nicholas de Stael, an exhaustive exhibition on the paintings or the Catalan Surrealist artist Juan Miro, and a surprisingly strong showing of the work of German Expressionist Max Beckmann. Still, some visitors believe that the Pompidou is just worth a visit for its stunning penthouse restaurant—a glass box overlooking the skyline of Paris, whose interior design is as strange and futuristic as Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
The success of the Pompidou Center is such that it has compelled quite a number of contemporary art galleries to open nearby and extend their reach into the neighboring Marais district, particularly in and around the magnificent Renaissance plaza, known as the Place des Vosges. A weekend crowd of collectors and tourists regularly wander in and out of these galleries to admire a range of zany and colorful sculpture, intriguing mixed-media pieces, as well as traditional still-life and landscape painting.
While many first-time visitors to Paris only make time for the major museums, further trips to the city warrant exploring the city’s lesser known institutions, including some stunning house-museums. One of my favorites is the Jacquemart-André Museum, a unique furnished mansion near the Arch of Triumph, that boasts a rich hoard of Rembrandts, Van Dycks, and Chardins, not to mention a miniature Italian Renaissance “studiolo” of stunning sculptures, fountains, paintings, and ceramics by such Florentine and Venetian masters as Carpaccio, Mantegna, Uccello and Botticelli. This lavishly decorated museum, often used for catered dinners and cocktails, features the only dining room in Paris decorated with a Tiepolo ceiling and a menu of salads aptly named after the Old Masters in the collection. The English-language audio guide is one of the best around, detailing the history of the collection, as well as different historic and technical aspects of the works of art on display.
And Paris wouldn’t be Paris without its staggering range of museum alternatives. There is the Museum of Montmartre, highlighting the works of artists who gravitated towards the artistic colony since the late 19th century; and the Museum of Romantic Life, located in an artist’s home and studio built more than 150 years ago for court painter Ary Scheffer, who once taught the children of King Louis Philippe. The Cognacq-Jay Museum, founded by department store mogul Ernest Cognacq, is another house-museum containing a choice assortment of works by Guardi, Canaletto, and Vigée-Lebrun, as well as the city’s best collection of English painting by such artists as Reynolds and Romney.
Hungry for more exotic cultural fare? Then don’t pass up the recently renovated Cernuschi Museum overlooking the Parc Monceau and known for its superb permanent collection and temporary exhibitions of Oriental art, as well as the largest bronze Buddha in Western Europe. This quiet and elegant museum is the kind that people seek out when they wish to be alone to contemplate bronzes, scrolls and porcelains that reveal the rich cultural heritage of China. Other good bets along these lines are the Musée Guimet, who Asian collection of art spans all of Southeast Asia, and the Dapper Museum, which specializes in African art.
These days of course, art has come to mean different things to different people. One of the most popular museums as well as one of the newest, is the Baccarat Museum on the Place des Etats-Unis, overlooking a statue of the Marquis de Lafayette enlacing the new general of the Continental Army, George Washington. The lavish and unexpected décor, provided by the architect and designer Philippe Starck, features chandeliers sunk in an aquarium of water, “talking” Baccarat vases that make use of holography and a non-stop soundtrack, as well as a select collection of signature crystal pieces created between 1860 and 1975 that includes glassware once used by Pope John Paul II and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Nowadays, even retailers such as Louis Vuitton, Colette and Agnès B, are keen to set aside some display space for art and photography. On the seventh floor of the new flagship Louis Vuitton store on the Champs-Elysées visitors will discover an art gallery dedicated to a continuous flow of contemporary artists and photographers. Ever since the concept store Colette opened six years ago, fine art photography has rubbed shoulders with French and Italian clothing and accessory designs for men and women. Designer Agnès B has also shown some of her favorite photographers at her headquarters boutique on the Rue du Jour, thus transforming a personal passion into a corporate trademark.
The Parisian’s dedication to art is best reflected in the goals and policies of the city’s current mayor, Bertrand Delanoe. Since he has taken office, the city’s museums are free of charge, and the Hotel de Ville regularly organizes free exhibitions open to the public. One of the most recent, showing photos of Paris by Willy Ronis, attracted lengthy daily lines for months on end.
For the past five years each fall, the city creates an artistic “happening” known as Les Nuits Blanches (The White Nights) when a number of the city’s museums and monuments are opened to the public until the wee hours of the morning. Last year, a number of artists created a lavish outdoor light show for those edifices that figured in the White Nights program, thus transforming the French capital into a dazzling, albeit ephemeral work of art. The White Nights drew record crowds, particularly of a younger generation not used to attending art exhibitions of any kind.
“With the White Nights, we are able to attract people who never saw themselves inside a museum. Our aim is to make art more democratic and accessible,” notes one of the mayor’s spokespersons. It is this new and novel approach to art, that continues to mark Paris as a pioneering leader in the world of art on the wish list of every lover of beauty and culture.
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