Man is the measure of all things miserable: a visit to the Pompidou

Thursday 25 May 2006

Update: Most of the links below to artists in the Pompidou’s online catalogue no longer work, thanks to their website’s excessively paranoid cookies. You’ll have to go to the front page and find them yourselves.
The Centre Pompidou will kill you. There are two vast floors of exhibition space: one for the permanent collection and one for the visiting shows. Ten Euros gets you one admission to each floor, there are no passouts and the overpriced cafeteria is three floors below. The place will kill you.
Tate Modern has just completely reopened the rehanging of its permanent collection but I don’t expect to see the top floor this weekend, what with it being a bank holiday and the place jammed with punters last time I visited. It’s almost too popular for its own good. When I visited the Pompidou on my Paris trip the permanent collection was also about to be closed and re-hung. I hope the new layout is better than the one I saw.
Like the Tate Modern’s previous incarnation, the Pomp had its art arranged into themed rooms, only with an even more pedagogical and condescending atmosphere. The low points came early; right in the entrance rooms, in fact, with a mini-exhibition dealing with “the face and the human body”. Sticking someone in a room full of Francis Bacon and Bruce Nauman at the start of a long slog through a museum is just plain cruel.
To add insult, the rest of the rooms were filled with juxtapotions of breathtaking crassness, such as plonking a Giacometti sculpture in front of a set of Warhol silkscreens of Jackie Kennedy to show that – wow! – different artists depict people in different ways. (Beaubourg, you’re blowing my mind here!) The entire installation seemed to have been geared towards a class excursion of dimwitted high school kids. I’ve never experienced a more dispiriting or unwelcoming entry to an art museum.
Things didn’t get any better in the next room, despite it containing some prime examples of Pollock (Number 26A, Black and White) and Johns (Figure 5). I love these paintings, but the Pomp did them a disservice by labelling the room they were in “Chaos and Collapse” or something. It suggested the room had been curated by a particularly regressive tabloid editor, until you remembered that entrance room stuffed with bodies in various degrees of distortion and decay and you realised this whole show has been put together by one of those po-faced Germanic intellectuals who write weighty monographs on the existential terror inherent in the cinematic oeuvre of Fred Astaire.
After this unpromising start the subsequent rooms settled into dull and obvious arrangements by style and genre, which was an improvement. A room full of De Stijl – OK; a room full of white things – maybe; one room each for transparent and reflective artworks – what the hell? I can’t believe the Pompidou’s vaults didn’t contain artworks less deserving of exhibition than some of the clear or shiny gewgaws making up the numbers in their respective rooms.
One aspect of the hanging worked: without additional explanation, Picasso kept turning up in room after room throughout the gallery, fitting into whatever context was provided. A wordless demonstration of why Picasso is such a big deal.
There was a pitiless absence of benches throughout the museum. There was no gallery seating whatsoever in the permanent collection until about halfway through, when some stools and tables with catalogues attached appeared (oh boy, a study break!) Several benches are scattered through the latter stages of the exhibition, so this initial absence may have been contrived to stop punters pegging out too early, little realising how much floor space they still had to traverse. At any rate, it was designed to move bodies through the museum rather than allow the (ahem) more seasoned afficionados seek out and fully appreicate the particular artworks they had come to see. If you wanted to properly contemplate a big or difficult painting, or even watch a 15-minute Gordon Matta-Clark film, you had to do it standing up. Ouch.
The first proper bench appears about two thirds of the way into the collection, and it’s parked in front of an Ugly German Painting. At least they were gracious enough to allow benches for us to admire Matisse’s late, great decoupage La Tristesse du Roi. Even these curators couldn’t resist its charms.
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First apparently perennial aspect of Pomp installations: side galleries stuffed with mounted books and magazines relevant to the artistic movements nearby. These exhibits trigger an initial rush of depression (the show comes with a reading list!), quickly followed by a certain perverse satisfaction, because two randomly-opened pages of Les Mots et Les Choses isn’t going to make any more sense to Francophones than to all the visitors who can’t read it.
Second apparently perennial aspect of Pomp installations: the museum still has a pervasive interest in architecture and urban planning – the old French dream of organising everybody (else’s) lives. A lot of architects’ work was on display, from a Louis Kahn maquette, to Constant’s wacky proto-situationist models, to a zillion or so megalomaniacal plans to Pave the Earth.
I tick another Gaudier-Brzeska off my list: Bird Swallowing a Fish.

That Donald Judd stack is really biffed about: did someone drop it, or did the Pomp get it cheap off the back of a truck?
Heh, a curator’s in-joke about an artist’s in-joke. The room of conceptual artists included works by Lawrence Weiner, Joseph Kosuth, Art and Language, and Martin Creed. Creed was represented by a recording of his rock band Owada playing softly in the corner. If you waited around long enough you’ll hear the song in which Weiner, Kosuth, and AaL accuse each other of ripping off their ideas. WFMU used to have the whole album available for download, but it’s gone! Here are the lyrics for your limited edification.