Picasso may be lording it over the Paris art world right now with “Picasso et les Maîtres,” a mega-exhibition at the Grand Palais and two smaller ones at the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay, but there are plenty of other rewarding exhibitions worth a visit. Here, in no particular order, is a sampling of a few of them.
One must-see is also on at the Musée d’Orsay: “Le Mystère de l’Eclat: Pastels du Musée d’Orsay,” an exhibition of over 100 pastels from some of the great painters of the second half of the 19th century, among them Edouard Manet, Odilon Redon and Edgar Degas. Here the humble pastel, that glorified crayon, gets to show off what it can do, adapting itself to every style, mood and technique.
In Manet’s hands, it glows with light in the stunning “Irma Brunner” (c. 1880-82). Jean-François Millet uses it to depict a sunlit explosion of daisies on a windowsill, with a young girl hiding coyly behind it in the shade, while Félix Bracquemond uses it to highly realistic effect in “Le Docteur Horace de Montègre” (1860). The 18th century may be considered the Golden Age of pastels, but their soft effects and colors became popular again with 19th-century Romantics and were later taken up by everyone from the Impressionists to the Symbolists. Don’t miss this lovely show.
The Musée de Cluny, home to the famous medieval Unicorn tapestries and first-century Roman baths, has a fascinating small show, “Celtes et Scandinaves,” that traces the peaceful spread of Christianity in Northern Europe through artworks, showing how the religion gradually became integrated into diverse Celtic and Scandinavian cultures as missionaries moved into territories outside the Roman Empire, illustrated by works from Ireland, England, Wales, Scotland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. We see how the artistic traditions of the earliest converts, the Irish, were gradually adopted and adapted by the others.
The peripatetic Scandinavians imported and adopted Christian motifs like crosses, at first just as ornaments. While their countries were still in the process of converting to Christianity, pagan practices lived on alongside the new religion, with their symbols mixing and mingling – one statuette, a cunning representation of the fertility god Freyr with a pointed hat and beard and a large erection, probably dates from around the year 1000, when Christianity was already established in Sweden.
Other highlights include an eighth-century illuminated manuscript from Ireland; a tiny figurine of a Walkyrie dating from the 10th century from Sweden; a 12th-century chair from Norway teeming with carvings of real and fantastic animals, battle scenes and more; and a set of intricately carved 12th-century wooden door jambs from a Norwegian church, one of which recounts the story of legendary Norse hero Sigurd, with cleverly sculpted scenes showing Sigurd roasting the heart of the dragon Fafnir, Regin forging Sigurd’s sword, and Sigurd breaking the false sword and killing Regin. Many of the pieces in this show rarely travel from their home countries, so don’t miss this chance to see them.
The Musée du Quai Branly, meanwhile, traces the development of another medium that encouraged the spread of decorative motifs throughout the world: textiles, specifically those using the resist dye technique, in the exhibition “Chemin de Couleurs: Teintures et Motifs du Monde.” The colorful and surprising pieces in this show, some of them two thousand years old, demonstrate that while resist dying is a relatively simple technique, it can be used to create much more sophisticated, varied and beautiful results than the tie-dyed T-shirts of the hippie era would lead one to believe.
Among the many lovely pieces on show are brilliantly colored women’s veils and men’s turbans from Rajasthan (certain color combinations were thought to have the power to bring rain); shoes from Kashmir; color-coded pieces from India and Pakistan that might identify a person’s place of origin, religion or social status; headhunters’ scarves from the Philippines; cloths from Nigeria covered with ritual symbols in the form of leopards, turtles, human stick figures and more; and even shrouds. The weaving and dying techniques used to make them are explained and illustrated.
In another temporary exhibition called “Rouge Kwoma,” Quai Branly is also showing colorful paintings by three contemporary artists from New Guinea – Kowspi Marek and his sons Chiphowka Kowspi and Agatoak Kowspi – based on the origin myth of Wanmai, which tells how it happened that the Kwoma people of northern New Guinea moved from their original home in the bowels of the earth to live on the surface.
An unusual show at the Pinacothèque de Paris, “Jackson Pollock et le Chamanisme,” also concerns origin myths and modern art, in this case by exploring the American painter’s fascination with Jungian theories (he underwent four years of Jungian analysis) and the influence of Native American shamanism on his work.
The exhibition, which features far too much wall text and far too few actual works by Pollock, might better have been presented as a well-illustrated book. The interesting theory presented is that Pollock’s so-called abstract paintings deliberately conceal their real subject, visible only to initiates – the shamanistic ritual of rebirth through death and chaos – and thus are not really abstract, subjective and individualistic at all but “non-objective.”
We would have liked to see more of the artist’s purely abstract works in support of this theory, but instead we get a number of his earlier paintings, some of which are so heavy-handed that they make one glad that he turned to “drip and splash” painting in 1947. The exhibition also includes a number of works by André Masson, who shared Pollock’s interest in Native American art and influenced his work, as well as a great number of marvelous ritual objects from various Native American cultures, including totems, masks, hatchets and “soul catchers.”
Finally, for kids, the Centre Pompidou has a fun, high-tech interactive exhibition, “Pourquoi Pas Toi,” created by Paris-based Irish artists Anne Cleary and Denis Connolly, that adults will enjoy as well. Visitors enter darkened rooms with projections of beautiful patterns and colors on the walls, which they can change themselves through their actions and movements.
The artists regularly invite dancers and actors to illustrate the infinite possibilities of interaction offered by their installations. Dancer Anne Collod will be on hand on December 20, choreographer Claire de Monclin and her students on January 7, and performance artist Christine Farenc on January 10, all between 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.
Musée d’Orsay: 1, rue de la Légion d’Honneur, 75007 Paris. Métro: Solferino. RER: Musée d’Orsay. Tel.: 01 40 49 48 14. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m., until 9:45 p.m. on Thursday. Admission: €9.50. Through February 1. www.musee-orsay.fr
Musée de Cluny: 6, place Paul Painlevé, 75005 Paris. Métro: Cluny La Sorbonne. Tel.: 01 53 73 78 16. Open Wednesday-Monday, 9:15 a.m.- 5:45 p.m. Admission: €7.50. Through January 12. www.musee-moyenage.fr
Musée du Quai Branly: 37, quai Branly, 75007 Paris. Métro: Iéna, Alma-Marceau or Bir Hakeim. RER: Pont de l’Alma. Tel.: 01 56 61 70 00. Open Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Admission: €8.50 (entire museum); €7 (temporary exhibitions). Through January 4. www.quaibranly.fr/
Pinacothèque de Paris: 28, place de la Madeleine, 75008 Paris. Métro: Madeleine. Tel.: 01 42 68 02 01. Open daily 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m. (until 9 p.m. on the first Wednesday of every month; 2 p.m.-6 p.m. on December 25 and January 1). Admission: €9. Through February 15, 2009. www.pinacotheque.com
Centre Pompidou: 19, rue Beaubourg, 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: €12 (includes admission to permanent collection and temporary exhibitions). Through January 12. www.centrepompidou.fr/