Centre Pompidou

February 20, 2007By Heidi EllisonArchive

Condensed History of Modern Art

Giorgio De Chirico’s
Giorgio De Chirico’s “Portrait Prémonitoire de Guillaume Apollinaire” (1914). Photo © Centre Pompidou, ADAGP, Paris, 2007

The Centre Pompidou’s just-opened chronological rehang of its permanent collection of modern art (1906-60) offers a certain vision of the history of 20th-century art. This condensed chronological survey sometimes flows almost too smoothly from one development to another, but there are many delights to be had in watching how the works echo each other while moving on to something new as we move forward in time from one room to the next.

This version of the story begins with the furious movement and jewel-like colors in the works of Blaue Reiter painters Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, along with a few pieces from Kandinsky’s private collection meant to show possible inspirations for his work: Russian icons, Japanese woodblock prints, folk paintings and hand-painted popular engravings with pure, bright colors.

The Matisses in the next room look positively staid and muted after the movement and strong colors of Kandinsky’s paintings. In the following room, color nearly disappears in the gray-brown Cubist paintings of Pablo Picasso (who pops up over and over again in the exhibition, depending on which style he was using during each time period) and Georges Braque. Color then reappears in their later Cubist works as they began to use wallpaper and other papiers collés. The further evolution of Cubism is seen in the next room in works by Henri Laurens and Juan Gris, with the latter bringing light, color and joy into a style that often produced grim, formulaic works.

The world is then distorted in different ways, going wavy and wiggly in works by Chaim Soutine and stretched out by Amedeo Modigliani. We are also given some of Marc Chagall’s highly personal versions of Cubism.

After all this visual fragmentation and distortion, we are brought up short by neoclassical works by Picasso, Balthus, André Derain, Otto Dix and other artists looking to the past rather than the future for inspiration. That parenthesis is followed by a new style influenced by the mechanics and dynamism of the industrial world, exemplified by paintings by Fernand Léger and swooping sculptures by Antoine Pevsner.

Then comes the wonderful lightness and grace of Alexander Calder’s mobiles, stabiles and wire sculptures, followed by similarly amorphous but heavier shapes in the works of Jean Arp.

The exhibition then walks us through the many incarnations of Surrealism, allotted a good deal of space, with works by Picasso, Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, Giorgio de Chirico and more.

The sense of flow and connection breaks down in the second half of the show. A taste of Dada is provided by Francis Picabia (a whole roomful of works in wildly different styles), Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp. Another room features dozens of paintings and studies by Georges Rouault that demonstrate the consistency of his colorful, black-outlined style. Yet another room showcases the experiments in color and light of Robert and Sonia Delaunay, and another the deceptively childish work of Jean Dubuffet, including some of his wonderful monster paintings, amusingly echoed in the next room in a collection of Brassaï’s photos of pictorial graffiti scratched on walls.

The rise of abstraction after World War II is documented in works by Lucio Fontana, Jackson Pollock, Hans Hartung, Mark Rothko and Pierre Soulages, contrasting with a room dedicated to the now very familiar late paintings and cutouts of Matisse, glowing with color. In a nice touch (intentional or not), the jewel-like colors of Matisse and the abstract works bring us full circle to two of the Kandinsky paintings at the beginning of the show, which are every bit as colorful and abstract as the later works.

Along the way, detours are made into modern furniture, with pieces by Pierre Chareau and Bauhaus designers, and photography, with the always witty and sometimes brilliant work of Man Ray. A re-creation of the atelier of André Breton, the theorist of Surrealism, is filled with African masks and weapons. At the end of the exhibition, a room is devoted to architect and furniture designer Jean Prouvé, whose handsome Maison Tropicale has been reconstructed outside the window on the museum terrace. Unfortunately, it is difficult to fully appreciate the house, which is hidden under the low overhang of the floor above.

Click here to read about the rehang of the Pompidou Center’’s contemporary art collection.

Centre Pompidou: Place Georges Pompidou, 75004 Paris. Tel.: 01 44 78 12 33. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. (until 11 p.m. on Thursday and Friday). Closed Tuesday. Métro: Rambuteau. Admission: €10. www.centrepompidou.fr/

Heidi Ellison


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