March 31, 2010

What's On in Paris

Here in Paris the Spring season of museum exhibitions is well underway, even if Mother Nature is still dithering! I never go out without an umbrella as even the clearest, bluest sky has a nasty habit of darkening and exploding in a rain or hailstorm at a moment's notice, and just as quickly returning to sparkling sunshine.

So if lounging outdoors at a smart café is a perilous pastime, there are plenty of interesting things to see indoors in some of the city's many museums.

Let's start with the Musée d'art moderne de la ville de Paris where the work of American born artist Elaine Sturtevant is on view. Sturtevant's "The Razzle Dazzle of Thinking" is part retropsective and part unveiling of her most recent work and a very good overview of her unique genre. Since the 1980s Sturtevant has challenged the notion of "original art" with her exquisitely rendered "Appropriations" of famous pieces. It's a curious concept and difficult to really understand, but has been practiced by several artists with Sturtevant probably the most original and most accomplished.

This exhibition presents her famous Marcel Duchamp installation, as well as works representing Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Paul McCarthy and others in mediums spanning oil painting to video. A brand new piece is "House of Horrors" where visitors ride in a carnival style gondola through a contemporary art inspired "House of Horrors". It is technically brilliant, intellectually challenging and a lot of fun!

Another living artist being honored with a museum show is British painter Lucian Freud whose work is now on view at the Centre Pompidou. Freud may not be everyone's cup of tea, but he is indisputedly a very fine painter and revered by many cognoscente as evidenced by the two hour wait to see this show. Divided into four main themes including "Interiors/Exteriors", "Reflection", "On Painting" and "As Flesh" the curators emphasize Freud's intention to make "...paint work as flesh". Views of interiors, urban landscapes, gardens, and above all portraits, are enigmatic, surprising and very insightful. Most people are painted naked, in blistering detail, as not just a depiction of how the person looks, but how the person really "is". This is an intense show and it leaves no doubt as to Freud's place in the contemporary art scene.

Now let's move across the Seine to the Left Bank and visit the Musée Maillol currently featuring "Vanités: From Caravaggio to Damien Hirst - C'est la vie!" a survey of skulls, skeletons and icons of death from the Middle Ages through the present. Since ancient times people have been both frightened and fascinated by death and have expressed these obsessions through art and objects. On display are paintings by Old Masters such as Francisco de Zurbaran of Saint Francis with his face obscured holding a skull, 1635, or Genovesino's 1652 image of a putti asleep on a head. Carved ivory memento mori of skeletons as cane or knife handles are displayed next to crystal sculls, exquisitely - if perhaps morbidly - illustrated books, and a fabulous collection of vintage 1940-50 jewelry by Codognato, all on the theme of death in every conceivable permutation.

Modern artists also used the imagery of skulls and skeletons and paintings by Picasso, Cézanne and Braque are great representations. Then the exhibition goes totally Contemporary and I was surprised at how pervasive the use of the skull device still is. From Damian Hirst's famous diamond studded cranium "For the Love of God", 2007, to Nicholas Rubenstein's 2006 skull sculpture with Mickey Mouse ears, to Andy Warhol's 1976 silkscreens of skulls - the iconography is everywhere. Although the Musée Maillol did not always use the finest examples of the œuvre, I think they successfully made the point that death endures with us in art.

Now it's back to the living and the rest of a beautiful day in Paris. Wait a minute - is that a storm cloud? Oh no! Better get the umbrella out again! A bientôt!

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