Centre Georges Pompidou

An Introduction to Modern Art at the Centre Georges Pompidou

The Centre Georges Pompidou is a large, distinctive 20th century building located in the 4th arrondissement of Paris. It is home to the Musée National d’Art Moderne (the National Museum of Modern Art), the Bibliothèque publique d’information (Public Information Library), and the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musicque (the Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music), commonly referred to as IRCAM. The building is named after Georges Pompidou, the President of France from 1969-1974, who commissioned its construction. The building was officially opened on January 31, 1977.

The building was designed by Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano, and Gianfranco Fanchini. It was selected from 681 entries in an international design competition, the first in which France allowed international architects to participate (Rogers is British-Italian; Piano and Franchini are both Italian). The Centre Pompidou was the first major example of the”inside-out” architectural style in which the typically hidden interior features of a building such as its structural, mechanical, and circulation systems are instead boldly exposed on its exterior.

The functional elements of the Centre Pompidou are colour-coded: the green pipes are for the building’s plumbing, the blue ducts for air-conditioning, the electrical wires are encased in yellow, and its elevators and staircases are red.

This frees up a lot of space inside: each of the ten floors, which measure 7,500 metres² , extend throughout the building without interruption by load-bearing structures. This allows for a lot of room for the Centre’s many exhibitions, performances, lectures, public reading facilities, and more!

The design of the Centre Pompidou was a radical architectural feat, and it did take a little while for the public to warm to the building’s appearance.

At first, some said it looked like an oil refinery. However, critics of the design soon embraced its novelty and revolutionary nature.

The Centre Pompidou aims to “decentralize art and literature” by breaking up the “elite nature” of museums and galleries. Its goal is to become a “popular place of social and cultural exchange, woven into the heart of the city.” The building’s unusual design strongly aligns with this mission.

From Pixabay.

Neil and I went to the Centre Georges Pompidou to see the Musée National d’Art Moderne. We walked by the Centre Pompidou on most days of our trip while en route to other parts of Paris, as the building was located close to where we were staying in Le Marais. We were curious to see what was inside such an interesting and colourful building!

Ascending the exterior escalator to the top floor of the museum.

The Musée National d’Art Moderne contains one of the largest collections of modern and contemporary art in the world, second only to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York. The museum at the Centre Pompidou has more than 100,000 pieces of art by 6,400 artists from 90 countries. Works include painting, sculpture, drawing, print, photography, cinema, new media, architecture, and design.

The permanent collection is so varied and extensive that only part of it can be displayed at any time, and the works are rotated every two years or so. Two floors host pieces from the permanent collection: one floor is dedicated to modern works (1905-1960), and a second floor to the contemporary works (1960 onward). A third floor contains space for five temporary exhibition halls.

The modern art collection includes styles such as Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism, Dada, Abstract, and Surrealism. It includes work by Henri Mattise, Pablo Picasso, Frida Kahlo, Magritte, Jackson Pollock, Robert Delaunay, Vassily Kandinsky, and many more.

The contemporary art collection includes styles such as Pop Art, New Realism, and Conceptual Art. Artists include Andy Warhol, Dan Flavin, Cindy Sherman, Gérard Deschamps, Roy Lichtenstein, and many others.

A modern art piece by Robert Delaunay, a French artist who co-founded the Orphism art movement along with his wife, Ukraine-born French painter Sonia Delauney. Orphism was an offshoot of Cubism, and focuses on bright colours, geometric shapes, and abstraction.

Une fenêtre (a window). Robert Delaunay, 1912.

A modern art piece by Vassily Kandinsky, a Russian pioneer credited as a pioneer in abstract art.

Entassement réglé (heaped up/heaping rule). Vassily Kandinsky, 1938.

The following contemporary piece by Gérard Deschamps is an example of New Realism, which is defined as “new ways of perceiving the real.” Deschamps’ preferred medium is textiles and collages. The work below is an accumulation of women’s undergarments including bras, knickers, and girdles.

Les Chiffons de La Châtre – Corsets Roses (The Rags of the Pink Corsets). Gérard Deschamps, 1960.

The museum says that Andy Warhol “rapidly established himself as the iconic figure of Pop Art.” Of his piece, Ten Lizes, the museum states that it “belongs to [Warhol’s] early period, when he was formulating the principles of his art. Warhol exhausts his subject through the use of screen-printing, a technique he used exclusively from then on, eliminating any narrative or emotional context. The image of the Hollywood icon thus acquires a certain fragility. Warhol’s work reveals the broken side of a woman who is both an actress and an allegory of a world dominated by the proliferation of images.”

Ten Lizes. Andy Warhol, 1963.

On the temporary exhibition floor, Neil and I explored works by British artist David Hockney (born 1937), American photographer Walker Evans (1903-1975), and French artist-philosopher Hervé Fischer (born 1941).

We actually saw Fischer’s work before we even entered the museum! There is a large public space located in front of the Centre, the Place Georges Pompidou, where street performers, sketch artists, and musicians entertain the crowds. There was a large circle painted by the entrance to the Centre Pompidou, which asks the question, “Art: Do You Have Anything to Declare?”

Below are some pieces from Fisher’s exhibit entitled “Sociological Art.” The museum explains that Fischer “uses art to probe the absurdity of advertising, economic, financial, and religious systems.” My favourite was the colourful pair of bar codes, below, entitled: “Vierge à l’enfant.” (Virgin to the Child). The Virgin and Child is a popular artistic motif, often used in Classical and Renaissance artwork. Here, Fisher makes it cheekily contemporary by using a bar code to link the popular artistic theme with what we worship today: consumerism!

Vierge à l’enfant. Hervé Fischer, 2000.

A self-portrait, also following the bar code theme.

Auto-portrait. Hervé Fischer, 2000

An Abundance of Choice.

Dans une abondance de choix. Hervé Fischer, 2007.

Emotion 7.

Émotion 7. Hervé Fischer, 2000.

Fischer poses some questions to the audience: Who decides what is art? Why art? What is the purpose of art? Is art indispensible? What is art made of? What is art? Where does art go? What are the limits of art? Who is art for?

One interesting piece at the museum was Jana Sterbak’s Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic. Sorry, Lady Gaga, Sterbak’s meat dress precedes yours by 23 years!  Below is an image of the dress on the opening day of the exhibit in 1987, when the meat was still fresh.

Below is the dress as it appears today. Of the dress, Sterbak said: “I think Vanitas is quite a successful work, if I can put it like that, because it can be interpreted in many different ways, from the respect that we do not accord to animals we raise for our food needs, to our own aging and death, the rituals of possession and absorption, etc. Vanitas could also be about the way time changes our perception of works. On the day of the opening, when the dress is exhibited, the flesh is raw. Then the meat dries and starts to look like leather. Then everything is better, it becomes acceptable. This is also true for artists. Some curators prefer to work with dead artists because they’re less troublesome.” (From Catherin Francblin, “Jana Sterbak, la condition d’animal humain” (interview). Art Press, no. 329, December 2006). Interestingly, Sterbak is a Canadian artist who studied at Emily Carr and UBC!

Vanitas: robe de chair pour albinos anorexique. Jana Sterbak, 1987.

Of the following piece, the museum stated: “Minimalist artist Dan Flavin was a pioneer in exploring the links between light and colour, working solely with fluorescent tubes, which became the basic components of his works. A painting in light or a modern icon conveying transcendence, this corner piece consists of various-coloured tubes assembled in a square on a metal frame. It challenges the traditional definition of artwork by making it impossible to see the boundary between the work and what is outside it. The neon lights illuminate not only the space enclosing the work, but also the area in which its viewer moves around, creating a symbolic minimalist situation.”

Untitled [to Donna] 5a. Dan Flavin, 1971.
The following piece by Yaacov Agam was commissioned by President Georges Pompidou. The museum states that it is “‘a pictorial space’ on the scale of a room, exploiting walls, ceiling, floors and doors. The Salon follows the principles of artist’s ‘polymorphic painting’ in its use of coloured-prism shaped elements to produce abstract compositions that change with the point of view. Installed between 1972 and 1974 under the aegis of the Mobilier National (the state collection of furniture and tapestries), it was dismantled on Valery Giscard D’estaing’s accession to the presidency [in 1974] and presented to the Centre Pompidou in 2000. Drawing on a very precise selection of colours and materials, the work offers the vision of a dynamic, geometric space, suggesting a permanent metamorphosis of the visual world.”

Kinetic Interior for the Elysee Palace. Yaacov Agam, 1971.

It was really cool to see!

A regional branch of the Centre Georges Pompidou was opened in Metz, France (250 km east of Paris). There are also other regional and temporary pop-up centres, including one in Brussels. Neil and I came across a temporary outpost of the Pompidou Centre in Málaga, Spain! Other future locations have been proposed for temporary exhibitions in Hong Kong, Mexico, and even Brazil.

View of the Cube, the temporary house of the Pompidou Centre in Málaga, Spain.

Overall, we had a lot of fun touring the modern art museum at the Centre Georges Pompidou. It provided us with a great introduction to modern art, which I did not know a lot about prior to our visit. I enjoyed something from every exhibit floor. With the permanent collection being changed up every two years, a return visit would result in an entirely new experience!

As a side note, the Centre Pompidou has air-conditioning. This is very useful to know if you visit Paris during a heat wave, like we did.

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