Episode 15: Modern Art in Paris

Picasso Museum, Paris The Kiss

Last Updated on April 1, 2024 by Marian Jones

This post tells you where to find modern art in Paris. It focuses mainly on three main museums where you can see 20th and 21st century works: the National Museum of Modern Art in the Pompidou Centre, the City of Paris Museum of Modern Art and the Musée Picasso. To finish off, we list some ideas on other places to see contemporary art in all its many forms, be that painting, sculpture, sound and video installations or photography.

the pompidou centre

The Pompidou Centre is multi-disciplinary centre for art and culture was President Georges Pompidou’s legacy to Paris, a space for all to enjoy art and culture. It opened in 1977, revitalising the rundown ‘les Halles’ area of Paris, bringing artists and buskers to the piazza and a much-talked about modern building which was nicknamed ‘Notre Dame des Pipes’, because it was an ’inside-out’ building whose colourful utility pipes were outside for all to see. Its themes were transparency – hence all the glass – and accessibility for all. At 42m, it’s higher than most other buildings and the views from the top are spectacular. The lift runs up and down the outside of the building. Of course it does!

Its best-known section is the National Museum for Modern Art on the 4th and 5th floors. It is Europe’s largest collection of modern and contemporary art, displayed chronologically, with works representing all the main artistic movements of the 20th century: Fauvists, Cubists like Picasso, Dadaism, Abstract Art, Surrealism and Expressionism. There is more information about these movements on the podcast.

Marcel Duchamp’s controversial work from 1917, The Fountain, is there. He sent a urinal to a New York art gallery – which rejected it! – explaining that it raised important questions such as ‘what is art? and ‘must it always be beautiful?’ Also there is Otto Dix’s ‘Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden, a portrait of an ‘emancipated woman’, the chain-smoking Berlin journalist, painted in 1926. Marc Chagal’s ‘Bridal couple at the Eiffel Tower’, painted in 1938, shows himself and his wife against a Paris background where the Jewish Quarter seems to be about to catch fire. Jewish himself, Chagall was very aware of the looming disasters of war and persecution.

Piet Mondrian’s New York City, painted in 1942, is simply a grid of red, blue and yellow lines, representing, he explained, New York’s ‘architectural gigantism, perpendicular urbanism and frantic traffic’. Joan Miro’s 1961 Triptych – Blue I, Blue II and Blue III – shows a plain blue background with a number of red lines and black splodges which he said resulted from ‘very great internal tension in order to arrive at a desired sobriety’. There are sculptures too, for example from the Design Pop movement in the 1960s, where artists used new materials such as plastic and polystyrene.

NB The Pompidou Centre will close for an extensive refurbishment in 2025 and is due to reopen in 2030.

the city of paris museum of modern art

The city’s Museum of Modern Art is housed in the Palais de Tokyo and is free to enter. It has 10,000 works, showcasing all the artistic movements of the 20th century and also contemporary and emerging artists. The works are displayed chronologically. Two major attractions are the Salle Matisse and Raoul Dufy’s vast mural, La Fée Electricité. (The Electricity Fairy)

The Salle Matisse, or Matisse Room, is based on a work commissioned in 1930. Matisse chose a dance theme for this large canvas and painted 3 different versions. He was unhappy with the first, which he called ‘La Danse Inachevée’ – the unfinished dance – and the 2nd turned out to be too big to fit the space, so he had to start again. The first and last of the series are displayed here.

Raoul Dufy’s Electricity Fairy was commission in the 1930s by an electricity company who sponsored it for the city’s International Exhibition and installed it on the Champ de Mars, just near the Eiffel Tower. It tells the story of electricity in 250 large panels, from its discovery to its many and various uses. A special paint was developed to give the work a luminous, transparent quality. It’s a real mix, with its upper half of sailing boats and birds, to its lower panels portraying 110 scientists and inventors, plus mythological elements such as Zeus’s thunderbolt which connects the power station generators and Iris, messenger of the gods, flying over the world’s capital cities.

musee picasso

In the 1970s, Picasso offered to leave his works to the nation in lieu of paying taxes and a 17th century mansion, the Hôtel Salé, was bought to house them. Some 5000 works are on display in the Picasso Museum – completed paintings, sculptures and engravings and also a collection of sketches, drafts, studies and notebooks which reveal his working practices. For example, there are examples of his preparatory work – sketches and paintings – for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, his controversial depiction of 5 nude prostitutes in a Barcelona brothel.

There are works from all his various periods, and examples of his favourite themes, such as portraits and self-portraits, guitars and bullfighting. Much of his cubist work can be seen here, there are surrealist paintings from the 1920s, and examples of his war paintings from the Spanish Civil War, with their dark back and grey colour schemes and distorted figures. Much of Picasso’s work is elsewhere, but here is a good overview of all periods of his life as an artist.

other places to see modern art in paris

Around the business area of La Défense is a ‘Musée à Ciel Ouvert’ (Open Air Museum), consisting of some 60 sculptures and dating from the 1970s. The Louis Vuitton Foundation opened in 2014, with a display area of 4000 square metres, showing contemporary works of art. The city’s main museum of photography is the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in the Marais district where some 20,000 works can be seen.

The podcast opens with a rundown of some of the many annual art festivals and events which take place in Paris.

Listen to the POdcast

Reading suggestions

Picasso by Rosalind Ormiston
Matisse by Volkmar Essers
Chagall by Ines Schlenker

links for this post

The Pompidou Centre
The Picasso Museum
City of Paris Museum of Modern Art
List of artworks in La Défense
Louis Vuitton Foundation
Maison Européenne de la Photographie

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