When the Centre Pompidou landed in Paris

ArtReview looks back on the critical reception of France's first contemporary art museum

Le Centre Pompidou, Paris. Photo: Maureen / wikicommons


Editor’s note: With the opening of the MoCo (Montpellier Contemporain), a new, ambitious contemporary art complex in the French southern city, ArtReview revisits the launch of France’s first modern and contemporary art museum, back in 1977 in Paris. Writing in the pages of the magazine, which was then called Arts Review, critics Marina Vaizey and Kevin Power’s divergent views reflect how the institution divided the opinion of the artworld and general public alike…

An innovative oddity

‘Pompidoleum Paris Impressions’, by Marina Vaizey, 18 March, 1977

The Centre National d’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou is a genuinely astonishing building erected to time, designed by foreign architects (Mr. Piano, Italian, Mr. Rogers, English, Mr. Franchini, Italian) and even in the event incorporating German steel. The French, we may recollect, didn’t much like the Eiffel Tower when it first loomed up; their city has before been ruthlessly razed and replanned on imperial lines (remember Haussmann?); and now in the name of ‘culture’ this truly remarkable building has been built, and it is in fact hard to fault on environmental grounds. Built on the plateau Beaubourg, hitherto more or less a parking lot for decades after an area thought to be slummy was razed (‘Beaubourg’ it is said, was an ironical appellation), the new centre has a fascinating facade, into the Rue de Renard, and a dramatic and exhilarating outlook into its own piazza, which is the side of the building along which the glass escalator zigzags some six floors. But except when you are within a stone’s throw of the building, it can hardly be seen; it dominates no vista; and its roof line is exactly in keeping with the older buildings in the area. Its existence is bringing scores of art galleries into the area.

The Centre was devised when it was thought that grand was better, rather than small is beautiful. And just because for various reasons many now think differently, theories about regionalism and devolution, too, not to mention practices, should not obscure the fact that by and large Western cultural activities have been urban ones. And that there can be a kind of irresistible momentum when numbers of people are drawn together by similar interests if not similar practices. This is already happening in the case of music; because a number of people have come to work in Paris because of Boulez’ centre in experimental music and acoustical research, a much-needed fillip to French concern with contemporary music has taken place.

Film, performance, music, the visual arts, a steady flow of critical examination of design (Centre de Creation Industrielle) a huge public library (Bibliotheque Publique d’Information, the first in Paris), workshops for children are all part of the complex. The space available to the National Museum of Modern Art has been increased by a third. On the terraces which extend at various levels outside the building there is sculpture. There is room for circuses and other events, and a little wooden structure housing Brancusi’s studio outside.

All through the building there are freestanding stainless steel snack bars, and a restaurant is soon to open on the top. The price to the public is eminently reasonable; in a city where it costs at present rate of exchange a pound to go to any temporary exhibition, a year’s ticket to the Centre will be about £6.

Inside the building is huge; the favoured comparison is that the floor area of each level is the same as two football pitches. These vast spaces are divided at will, unhampered by vertical structures carrying essential services, as these are all to be found on the outside of the building. The museum is set out like an art fair, the spaces divided up by free-standing white painted walls which form cubicles or partial enclosures. They have borrowed and bought for the grand move, and the result is an unusually representative foray into the story of modernism, even though the collection contains surprisingly few ‘great’ paintings, considering the primacy of Paris during the first three decades this century.

The chief thing that is readily disconcerting in the opening of the Centre is the difficulty of looking at pre-war art. Post-war art is easier, first because the paintings and other objects are large, secondly because a more throw-away attitude is evident in much of the work which goes well with the presentation. But for the older art, the Centre is visually speaking very noisy, with sculpture clashing with the fretwork of pipes which form the ceilings. One can hardly look at one thing at a time, unless the item is very small. The temporary exhibition space works well, except psychologically, because of the ambience of the building, ‘temporary’ is indeed the mot juste. This all suits Duchamp very well, who is perhaps thee major hero of the complex, and who is posthumously honoured in his home town with the biggest exhibition ever devoted to his work. […]

A dystopian art supermarket

‘Duchamp at Pompiport’, by Kevin Power, 8 July, 1977

The Beaubourg Centre encourages animosity. It looks like a nuclear centre, or an oil refinery, or some early learning toy. It’s a product of a slick Eurotechnocracy that squeezes culture, or a quartier, into a package and ties it up with a terminology of targets, strat-plans, and mini-budgets. Beaubourg is the next stop down the line after Godard’s Alphaville, and it rises up in the midst of the Marais as a monument to the style Pompidou: brash grandeur.

Things don’t really improve inside – a panorama of temporarily erected partitions like offices in the Labour Exchange, a cultural flea-market. In theory this creates a fluidity of space so that, if need be, even the floor-levels could be altered. In practice it’s a painful experience to come across Braque or Matisse choking in a booth. The guiding principle seems to have been little else than the englobing accommodation of a supermarket. This is particularly annoying in that much of the work in the permanent collection has the power to create its own silence, only to have it broken into by conversations that float over from the other side of the partition.

Beaubourg is the next stop down the line after Godard’s Alphaville, and it rises up in the midst of the Marais as a monument to the style Pompidou: brash grandeur

Basking in the Penthouse suite, reeking of cheap deodorant (in an exhibition held in April and May) sits La Belle Haleine, alias Marcel Duchamp in drag (or is it Woody Allen’s sister-in-law?). Punning, tongue-in-check, he’s clearly as completely at home as when he exhibited his Rotorreliefs at the Paris Inventors Salon along with a vegetable peeler and a garbage compressor. Duchamp would have revelled in the contradictions, the ironies of coin and kind, of mass and money. This exhibition, more or less a replica of the 1973 show at the Museum of Modern Art, is the first retrospective to be devoted to Duchamp’s work in the country of his birth. It spans his various personalities and leaves us in no doubt as to how just how influential his work has been over the past 50 years. He's used the constants of his work, sex, mind and machine, to challenge and disturb a reality made up of conditioned responses and routine thinking […] read in full 

From the 8 July, 1977 issue of ArtReview (then titled Arts Review)