Two of my favorite hangouts in Paris are the Pompidou Centre and the Rodin Museum. I will write about other favorite hangouts, but I want to tout these first, along with recent photo exhibits in each one.
An annual membership for one person at the Pompidou costs all of 49 euros currently. That is a ridiculous bargain for what you get, and if you are in Paris for more than a month, it is worth the price. Not only can you use the much shorter line for adherents — and remember that the security check line even on a winter weekday can stretch halfway up the Pompidou’s sloped courtyard — but you also get free entry to their special exhibits, which are almost always exceptional, and reduced annual memberships to a number of excellent partner institutions. This fall I went three or four times to a special exhibit of Andre Derain’s artist journey from 1904 to 1914. To top it off, there is a cafe — anybody can access this, but you need to stand in line for security first — and the cafe, though not inexpensive, offers cafeteria service, perches over the vast entrance hall of the Centre, and is never full. It is a good place to spend an hour reading or writing or daydreaming. In addition, it stocks one of the best beers in Paris (not a notorious beer place): Gallia’s West IPA. I get there around 6 p.m. every so often as a special treat. One of the young, amiable wait staff knows my order. The Centre is open until 10 pm most days — until 11 pm on Thursdays. Tickets and exhibits close an hour earlier, but you can hang out in the lobby. There is also a huge library, two shops, a children’s area, and the exterior escalator that offers spectacular if somewhat dusty views of the city. Their regular exhibits, one floor of “modern” art and one floor of “contemporary” art, are just wonderful — huge, varied, and impressive. Parts of them rotate regularly.
I will return to the Pompidou in another blog post, because there is currently an astonishingly rich exhibit by David Goldblatt, a white South African photographer. But the other one I attended recently, hung in the regular basement photo gallery, was by Broomberg and Chanarin, called “Divine Violence.” It will be at the Pompidou until May 21 (2018).
Be happy and at peace — the presentation is in English with French subtitles.
The exhibit is conceptual in nature. It takes images, some famous and most not-so-famous, and superimposes them on Biblical pages, with phrases and passages underlined in red ink. The compositions are scathing comments on legitimated human depravity sanctioned by human institutions — religion, the military. Some images will be familiar to Americans who dared view the photos of US military torture in Bush’s Iraq war. The exhibit commentary calls the juxtapositions “ironic,” but I experienced them as jarring, brutal, and true. They do not focus just on American atrocities, but return to the second world war and also to random acts of stupidity and censorship that sanction interpersonal violence, such as book burnings. There are also simple human moments, such as a woman sunbathing on a boat — her hand draped casually over herself. I’m not a big fan of conceptual art (oh, I know — all art is conceptual, duh), but this exhibit moved me and I had to get out in a hurry.
Another favorite place in Paris is the Musee Rodin, in the old Hotel Biron, where Rodin himself worked for the last decades of his career. The Musee, which the sculptor donated to the nation, during the First War, is situated in a park landscaped with floral paths, fountains, sculptures, and shady stands of trees. Events are held on the large lawn, the stage formed by the broad back veranda of the Hotel Biron. There is a cafe in the park — again, with cafeteria service, indoor and outdoor seating, and birds that wander around looking for your donations.
There is also a building where the visitor buys tickets, shops at the museum store, or views one of the special exhibits.
You can purchase a packet of admissions to the museum and the grounds, or a packet just to the grounds. I’ve used individual admissions this year, just because I couldn’t decide how often I would go, and I couldn’t find an annual membership. Once on the grounds, it is hard to bypass the museum itself — Rodin’s studies and his contemporaries’ versions of Rodin himself, as well as the French cultural and natural scene at the long turn of the century. The high-ceilinged galleries are soaked in light, even on cloudy days.
On the other hand, if you’ve just got a few extra euros and you are near the rue de Varenne or the Invalides, it is not a terrible fate to buy an admission to the grounds and have some lunch at the cafe. You will see Rodin’s most breathtaking works in the gardens: the Thinker, the Burghers of Calais, the Gates of Hell, Balzac, and others.
Earlier this year there was a tiny special exhibit in an interior hallway on the second floor of the museum, Steichen/Rodin: un dialogue. The Luxembourg-born American photographer Edward Steichen became entranced with Rodin’s work in 1898, after seeing a photograph of Rodin’s monument to Balzac. Steichen became an integral part of the cultural traffic between France and the United States around the turn of the century, in part driven by his admiration of Rodin’s work. The two men met in 1901. Rodin allowed Steichen into his studio to photograph him working. In 1908, Rodin enlisted Steichen as the photographer in a publicity campaign around the Balzac sculpture.
Steichen understood Rodin’s vision, and Rodin appreciated Steichen’s portrait photos and his photos of Rodin’s sculptures. Their collaboration offers us once again the continuities between the deepest cultural and aesthetic questions of the nineteenth century, and their responsive expressions in the twentieth. Yes, there are cultural breaks and discontinuities in modern history, but Rodin’s work speaks to us intimately today, despite his immersion in the 19th century and his death in 1917 at the age of 77, because he mentored virtually all twentieth-century artists with the extravagant passion of his three-dimensional portraits. Steichen’s photography of this era was firmly in the pictorialist school, impressionistic, romantic — it captured Rodin’s romanticism and also his modernity perfectly.
When I returned to the Rodin, hoping to take a second look at the Steichen exhibit, it was gone. My bad. However, the wonderful exhibit narrative on the web site exists still. Now (April 2018) there is a lovely exhibit in the front building of Rodin and the Dance — and that windowless center hallway in the main museum is taken up with viewers’ art related to the dance.