Being Modern: MoMA in Paris exhibition

SAM ROBINSON (second year student)

Situated on the western arc of Paris’s Boulevard Périphérique, perhaps better known as the Périph, the Louis Vuitton Foundation presents something of a welcome respite from the bustle of inner-city Paris. Having spent the best part of the week-long study trip rattling around the Metro in short bursts from Musee D’Orsay to Centre Pompidou, the semi-rural feel of the LVF building felt a bit alien.

Fondation LV

Unbeknownst to me at the time, the route I had opted for would take me on a scenic tour of the Parisian periphery – a mostly wintery scene, that is, made up of desolate woodland and dual-carriageways. Once the leafless canopy began to clear, however, the destination presented itself in the most striking sense. Several glass panels of a grand scale, arced and deflected, are held together by a semi-visible industrial skeleton to resemble the grandest, gleaning origami construction on the Paris skyline.

Home to the recent Being Modern: MoMA in Paris exhibition, the building is the product of architect Frank Gehry’s trademark obsession with warping and visually stimulating curvature (see Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum) and is something quite remarkable to behold. There is a strong sense of statement to Gehry’s architecture, a bold design that stands out both aesthetically and geographically.

The fact that the roof terrace might ordinarily offer exquisite views of the Eiffel Tower, if it weren’t for the quite deliberate placement of a web of hefty iron pillars, suggests that this building aims to stand apart from the traditional tourist image of Paris. This is the Eiffel Tower of the Périph.

An impressive sight, the LVF building nonetheless echoes the corporate excess of those that occupy it. For me, the uneasy cleanliness and air of expense sat at visible odds with the pretty bleak landscape of the Bois de Bologne in winter. Such feeling was probably best represented by the dozens of queueing visitors anxiously scraping the mud off their feet so as to not dirty the pristine white walkway, for fear of reprisal …. It certainly felt the shiny new product of Paris’ highest-end fashion corporation, a showpiece of expensive designer taste – a world distinctly apart from the functionality and industry of the Pompidou or Eiffel Tower.

That said, once inside, it becomes apparent that such an exhibition would most probably not have become a reality without the sheer cost of it all being able to be met. The volume of work on show on loan from the MoMA — over 100 objects — reportedly required no fewer than seventeen trans-Atlantic shipments to get it all to Paris, which, I’m guessing isn’t exactly cheap.

The first floor of the exhibition, which spanned four floors in total, offers a chronological examination of the MoMA’s history. Initially House by the Railroad by Edward Hopper, 1925, cuts a lonely figure – but only momentarily, as attention is immediately wrenched away by the plethora of instantly recognisable icons of twentieth-century modern art that lay beyond it. Should the eye veer too far left while viewing Hopper’s work, for example, the flitting projection of Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie (1928) proves far too intriguing a distraction.

Whether this was merely a personal failing, my own attention deficit, or whether bigger questions are to be asked about the design of this show, there certainly was some sense of chaos to the display. Perhaps this was an inevitable result of trying to present so many objects — many of them very famous — of all different kinds in one space …. Whatever it was, certainly the show was a feast for the eyes, so much so that it often seemed difficult to concentrate on any one object.

Opus 217 by Paul Signac caught the eye, as a work returning from whence it came. It alludes to the great influence that Parisian and European art once held in shaping the future for American modern art, although after the first floor and the founding years of the MoMA, the art becomes noticeably more American in its identity.

The previously overwhelming collection also begins to thin, in that each individual work is allowed more room to breathe and not diminish into the overwhelmed whole. Andy Warhol’s infamous Campbell’s Soup Cans are allowed a vast amount of wall space, as are other iconic works such as Roy Lichtenstein’s Drowning Girl. It makes sense, too, of course, that the most iconic works and their makers are afforded the most space and so attention. Working in chronological order, floor by floor, presents a kind of ascent to a climax. Between each floor, there was an increasing, though indiscernible, buzz of anticipation as visitors escalated past the webbed glass sails of the exterior (somewhat in awe) to the very top.

In this sense I think America was very much the point of ‘Being Modern: MoMA in Paris’. There is some sense of an overzealous presentation of a pure American spectacle, as a show of national pride and brute strength via the medium of loaned artworks. Even so, the exhibition would essentially have been doing what it said on the tin – presenting the ‘MoMA in Paris’: the pinnacle institution of American modern art, showing off a tour de force roll call of world-renowned art to the rest of the world.


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