top of page
  • Writer's pictureVan Weyenbergh Fine Art

Centre Pompidou, artistic UFO

Monday, January 31, 1977: It is in an electric atmosphere that the President of the Republic Valéry Giscard d'Estaing inaugurates the Center Georges Pompidou, a project supported by his predecessor (whose name the museum bears) and in which he does not believe. His speech, smooth and sluggish, barely salutes the titanic work that has just been achieved by teams that have succeeded in bringing out of the ground, in the heart of Paris, a cultural place of a radically new genre. Among them, Pontus Hultén, director of the National Museum of Modern Art (Mnam), looks cool. Despite the criticisms he has received since the start of the adventure, he is convinced: "We will have the line at Beaubourg. The following days prove him right. A real human tidal wave sweeps through all the accessible spaces of the Center. Scheduled to receive 5,000 people a day, it welcomes 40,000 when it opens, then 25,000 daily, posting over seven million visitors in the first year! A huge success. It was the public that made Beaubourg, legitimizing its existence with immediate enthusiasm.

"Fruit of multiple mediations", Centre Pompidou corresponds "to the spirit of the time, to a change of style against a background of contestation, a mixture of high-tech modernity and celebration". The liberation of women, sexual freedom, questioning the past and the capitalist system, democratization of culture, commitment of artists and intellectuals: the institution carries within it the aspirations for change in part of French society. If the commonly accepted idea wants it to be the project of a President keen on art and literature, it is first of all "the Center 68". A project on the left carried by a man on the right, in short. When he came to power, Georges Pompidou realized that France was lagging culturally. It lacks a vast library open to all and a place for contemporary creation, capable of accommodating naked women painted in blue by Yves Klein, of showing feature films by Andy Warhol, of broadcasting experimental music by Pierre Boulez, to exhibit the eight-meter-long photographs of Ed Ruscha, the giantsNana by Niki de Saint Phalle, or the polyurethane foam expansions by César; also capable of breaking the boundaries between the so-called major and minor arts. The President decides to react and, at the end of 1969, proposes to erect in the Les Halles district a multidisciplinary place making a sort of ideal synthesis of the arts.

The authors of this architectural UFO are two young outsiders, a Briton and an Italian, who, to everyone's surprise, won the architecture competition in July 1971 against 680 competitors! Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano take on the festive aspect of their "voluntarily provocative" building, conceived both as "a toy and a futuristic-looking vessel", underlines Rogers. And his friend adds: "The Center is a great joke executed with the seriousness of professionals. Its missions are immense since it houses the Mnam, the CCI, and the library, while IRCAM was built under the adjacent Igor Stravinsky square - which has the double advantage of preserving the view of the Saint-Merri church, and to solve the problems of acoustics -, animated by the mechanical sculptures of Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle. In Beaubourg, everything is movement, from the bustle of its forecourt, an old car park returned to pedestrians, to the facades embellished with the famous Escalator tracks that lead from one floor to the other with a breathtaking view of Paris. A "heart in the heart of Paris", "suction pump and repressor, with uninterrupted beats", which inspires the writer Eric Pons the term "moviment".

The first event, entitled "Paris - New York ", Opens France to American art by evoking fruitful exchanges on both sides of the Atlantic, with the reconstruction of the Stein apartment in Paris, Mondrian's workshops, or the New York gallery of Peggy Guggenheim. Through its spectacular scenography, the route abolishes the borders between artists, shows the mobility of works and people. In the same spirit, "Paris-Berlin" and "Paris-Moscow" will follow. Pontus Hultén's proposals write another history of art, more open, more international, against the grain of traditional categories. As surprising as it is relevant, the display, designed as a series of visual shocks, encourages the public to take a fresh look at the works, to conceive of their visit as a participative experience combining emotion and reflection. This bias would remain in the DNA of the Center, which will keep the promises of its beginnings with new cheeky exhibitions such as "Magicians of the Earth" (1989), devoted to contemporary artists not Western or unclassifiable, "Feminine-Male - The sex of art" (1995), or "Out of bounds - Art and life" on performance (1994). By making its exhibitions a real event, the Center has opened up new perspectives for museums where, from now on, contemporary creation has its place.

In a few years, Beaubourg, originally thought of as an experimental place in perpetual motion, has become the model to follow and one of the jewels of French heritage. The "moviment" has turned into a monument. So how do you reinvent yourself without betraying yourself? A thorny question to which the Milanese architect Gae Aulenti struggled to answer during the 1985 renovation, where she partitioned spaces to show more works according to a more educational logic. A second renovation, in 2000, further divided the spaces with a separate entrance for the library. And, since 2010, it is to its antenna inaugurated in Metz that we must go if we want to find the clearing spirit of the mythical exhibitions of the beginnings.

Beaux Arts

bottom of page