Art Beyond the Border

November 29, 2005By Heidi EllisonMuseums

Why would any self-respecting Parisian ride the Métro to the outskirts of the city and then mount a crowded bus for a long ride into the suburbs, far from the périphérique, that psychological dividing line between civilization and the rest of the world?

For one very good reason: to visit the country’s newest museum of contemporary art, the Musée d’Art Contemporain du Val-de-Marne (MAC/VAL), which turns out to be a stunning success in every way.

On a visit to the museum last Sunday, Jacques Monory, the artist whose one-man show kicked off MAC/VAL’s program of temporary exhibitions, proclaimed it the best contemporary art museum in France, lauding it for giving him carte blanche to set up his show in nearly a third of the museum’s space and for its permanent collection. “They’re not showing the same artists you see in all the other contemporary museums,” he said. Monory, who was dressed nattily in a black leather trenchcoat and trilbly hat, drops by often and happily chats with visitors.

A figurative painter in the age of abstraction, Monory has turned his third of the museum into a sensory experience. Visitors follow a spiral-shaped path that seems to take them on a tour through the artist’s psyche. It begins with mirrored walls and floor hung with a single large-format painting in intense shades of blue. The walls and floor then turn midnight blue, with more blue and some black paintings. As the spiral curves, the walls gradually become lighter and splashes of yellow and hot pink begin to appear on the blue paintings, which become increasingly colorful. At the end, the bright white center of the spiral is hung with cosmic paintings in brilliant colors.

As visitors move through the spiral, the subject matter of the paintings, dating from 1965 to 2000, also progresses, moving from the dark, violent, mysterious themes of the early, collage-like blue paintings to the joyous light of the final images.

The rest of the museum is also a joy to visit. An architectural curiosity in a way – it was apparently designed by Jacques Ripault 20 years ago (that’s how long it took to raise the money to get it built) – it offers spaces of varying surface areas and ceiling heights to accommodate works of different sizes, with openings between them offering visitors new perspectives on the works in other rooms, not unlike the new MOMA in New York City on a smaller scale.

The works are well-chosen and well-displayed. While some famous names like Dubuffet and César are on show, pieces by many less familiar artists give the museum a fresh, truly contemporary feel. And, although the museum was full of children last Sunday, they were all so fascinated by the works that they didn’t even think of misbehaving.

MAC/VAL was the dream of Michel Germa, former president of Vitry-sur-Seine’s departmental council, a communist who believes that culture is as important as economic development. With a permanent collection of 1,200 works, the museum will concentrate on works by French artists or foreign artists who work in France.

Parisians can’t resist culture or a nouveauté, and that crowded suburban bus was full of them.


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