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Art Review: Masterpieces from the Centre Pompidou

The Pompidou pops up in Shanghai, bringing with it art world legends and Parisian je ne sais quoi...
Last updated: 2016-10-19
Living up to the whole Paris of the East cliché, Shanghai Exhibition Center is currently hosting seminal works on loan from the Centre Pompidou, a landmark cultural hub in the French capital and home to Europe’s largest collection of modern and contemporary art. The touring showcase traces the development of French art from Fauvism in 1906, through to the 1977 opening of the Parisian institution through paintings, sculptures and sound by a who’s who of art world greats. For getting up close and personal with legends like Picasso, Calder, Giacometti and Brassaï, this capsule show's definitely recommended.

Victor Vasarely, Arny, 1967

Taking Fauvism as its starting point -- a short-lived movement placing deft brushstrokes and strong color over representation -- the exhibition meanders through the major genres of the period. Pioneer of the 'Ready-Mades' Marcel Duchamp is there by way of Bicycle Wheel: mounted on a stool in the corner of the artist’s studio, the contraption was never meant as art, Duchamp claimed, but instead was a kind of hypnotic diversion. Nevertheless, it paved the way for the likes of Bottle Rack and Fountain, heralding new possibilities for what art could be.

Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel, 1913-1964

A brief foray into Cubism ushers in Surrealism and symbols courtesy of Chagall’s Double Portrait With a Glass of Wine. Depicting the artist and his new bride Bella floating high above the city alongside a cherubic purple angel, it’s pure joy midst a section of works dealing with the dark reality of the First World War.

Marc Chagall, Double Portrait with Glass of Wine, 1917

Coinciding with the rapid modernization of industry, architecture and cities was the Modernism movement. That’s touched on here by way of a film documenting the construction of Eugene Freyssinet’s intimidatingly gigantic airship hangars in Orly; and two pleasingly utilitarian chairs by Jean Prouvé and Robert Mallet-Stevens. The show features just one work per artist, per year, making for a super-condensed and concise overview of art history: there’s Kandinsky’s gorgeous geometry from his time teaching at Bauhaus, Alexander Calder’s kinetic art, and one of Arman’s so-called ‘accumulation’ works. Groundbreaking at the time, they comprise identical objects in a Plexiglass case - the ironically titled Home Sweet Home is a collection of gas masks.

Alberto Giacometti, 1956

Works on show do a fine job of tracing not just the evolution of artistic styles and possibilities in 20th century France, but also contemporary concerns and events. That inevitably includes the darkness of war -- but also an emblem of its aftermath by way of Édith Piaf’s iconic chanson, La Vie En Rose. Similarly, the civil unrest of May 1968 is crystallized in a photograph by Gilles Caron of a lone figure hurling a grenade in an empty street. Social commentary also extends to the cult of consumerism: Christo’s Package is one of a series of mysterious objects wrapped in paper and string. Playing on ideas of value, of the invisible versus the visible, opening the parcel -- tempting though it seems -- would destroy the artwork.

Christo, Package, 1961

Capping off the show's final works -- a monochromatic triptych by Geneviève Asse (1971), Jean Dubuffet's irregular doodles (1973), and Hucleux's hyperrealist cemetery painting (1974) -- the closing piece is an architectural model of the Centre Pompidou itself. Designed by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, the high-tech architecture injected a dose of vibrancy to the French capital’s skyline when it opened in 1977. Indeed, the building -- complete with a colorful exoskeleton of pipes and ducts -- is arguably as iconic as the works inside, and as important as the museum’s eponymous instigator.

Yaacov Agam, Double Metamorphosis III, 1969

A rare treat for Shanghai, this one’s already drawing the crowds. Brace yourselves: the exhibition is designed as a kind of winding pathway of narrow corridors, pretty much inviting traffic jams. A decent audio guide is available (20rmb with 100rmb returnable deposit), but explanatory texts aren't just sparse, they’re positioned on the wall behind the work they describe. It would also be remiss not to mention the ticket price -- a costly 150rmb. I queried this with organizers, who cited hefty overheads like venue rental fee, insurance, transportation, loan costs, security and humidity control. Simply put, staging a privately-funded show like this is expensive -- more than the 14 EUR it would cost to see the works in their Parisian home, and almost as much as entry to New York's MoMA. As Shanghai price-hikes go, it's significant.

Claude Viallat, Rope, 1970

Is it worth it? For the caliber of works, a glimpse into Paris of yesteryear, and hints of historic context, yes. A kind of illustrated introduction to 20th century art, albeit one lacking much in the way of frames of reference, it’s a rare opportunity to see these stellar works in the flesh, and in China. For details and ticketing, here's the listing.

All images © 崔鋆俊 Cui Junjun