The D&O Diary rounded out its European visit last week with a quick weekend visit to Paris. In addition to a rendezvous with friends and family, the stopover included several long walks, two encounters with the Parisian contemporary art museum scene, and one extraordinary meal.
The best of the weekend’s walks was an energetic march through the Bois de Boulogne, the enormous park and preserve at the Western edge of the city of Paris, where the flowering plants and trees were blooming in the late March sunshine. At 2,090 acres, the Bois de Boulogne is nearly two and a half times larger than Central Park. Along the park’s east side are a winding set of pathways flanking a series of ponds. The ponds include a number of interesting and curious structures, including the Kiosk of the Emperor on an island in the Lac Inferieur (lower lake), as shown in the picture below.
As pleasant as our stroll was, the primary purpose of our visit to the park was to see the Louis Vuitton Foundation (pictured left), the new $143 million art museum designed by the famed architect Frank Gehry. The museum opened in late 2014. The glass, wood and stone structure is built in the shape of sailboat sails inflated by the wind. The glass exterior shapes enclose a central stone structure that includes a series of multilevel roof terraces. The terraces afford views of the Bois de Boulogne (first picture below), and, to the west, to La Défense, the agglomeration of modern, high-rise office buildings just outside the city (second picture below)
The two-story structure encloses eleven galleries of different sizes. The museum’s collection includes works of contemporary art assembled from a combination of works owned by LVMH and Bernard Arnault. The casual visitor will find the works on exhibit to be avant-garde, experimental and, often, obscure. All of the works are high-concept, mannered, and many are difficult (deliberately so, one can only assume). One work on display was a pile of metal ironing boards. Another room contained large paintings of canvases cut in basic geometric shapes, painted in a single color – a black rectangle, a red rhombus, a green parallelogram. A very large room on the ground level contained a massive audio system playing the music of Kanye West, with a video projected along the back wall. The video was created by the award-winning director Steve McQueen. In the video, Kanye walks around. Or looks around. Then he sits down. Then he stands up. Etc. The music is very, very, very loud.
The building itself is a challenge for the art inside. The building is so massive and its style so flamboyant that the art inside is almost overwhelmed. The overall effect is that the art can seem insignificant and ephemeral.
Despite my skeptical remarks, I recommend a visit to the museum for any Parisian tourist. The building is striking and remarkable. Indeed, I would recommend visiting the museum sooner rather than later. Time could prove me wrong, but I fear that the beautiful white stone and the exposed wooden beams that affix the glass exterior to the interior stone building will not age well. In particular, I am concerned that time and weather will diminish the inspiring glimpses of the building’s complex structure from the terraces.
As much as I enjoyed my visit to the Fondation, in terms of the art on display, I have to say that I preferred the contemporary art collection in the Palais de Tokyo, which we visited early the next day. The Palais is located on the Seine, across the river and just upstream from the Eiffel Tower. The collection in the Palais is much larger, and the works are much more adventurous and even rebellious – and in at least some instances, deliberately humorous. The Palais opened in 1937 as the pavilion of modern art for the Universal Exposition held that year in Paris. The museum’s rather conventional 20th century building is the modest backdrop for the 21st century art within. On the day of our visit there were two particular interesting exhibitions; the first, L’Usage des Formes (The Use of the Form), explored the artistry of tools and instruments used in craftsmanship. The second, Le Bord du Mondes (The Edge of Worlds), featured contemporary art from around the world (particularly Southeast Asia).
This Paris visit culminated in a very unusual dinner on Saturday night, in which ten friends gathered to discuss the philosophy of Epicureanism over an excellent French meal accompanied by a profusion of French wine and champagne. The hours-long discussion took place exclusively in French. Early in the evening, I felt like I was holding my own. But as the evening wore on and the empty bottles accumulated, I was content to listen and to try to keep up with the increasingly animated discussion. This was no mere intellectual exercise; passions were engaged as well. Indeed, late in the evening, one of the guests — after a heated exchange with another guest in which both were shouting “non, non, non, non, non” at each other in true Gallic fashion – suddenly got up and left, in a fit of philosophical rage. It was an extraordinary evening, but I have to confess that as I made my way to the Metro at the end of the evening, my head ached from trying to listen to and comprehend the French conversation for several hours.
For those readers who may have an interest in Epicureanism, I highly recommend Harvard Professor Stephen Greenblatt’s National Book Award-winning book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, which tells the tale of how the Italian 15th century humanist Poggio Bracciolini found long-forgotten manuscripts of Lucretius’s epic philosophical poem De rerum natura, which contains the tenets and philosophy of Epicureanism, and how the philosophy influenced modern thought. I should add that the book was gift to me from my good friend, Perry Granof.
Lest anyone think my weekend in Paris involved only effete entertainments, I should add here that my visit also included an evening at the Moose Bar (a Canadian-themed watering hole in the Odeon district favored by ex-pats) watching the French national team lose 1-3 to the Brazilian team in an International Friendly soccer match. Late in the evening, after the soccer game ended, we had the unexpected experience of watching the start of an NCAA tournament basketball game deep in the heart of the Rive Gauche.
Every time I visit Paris I wish I had planned to spend more time there. Of course, if every visit to Paris is too short, a weekend visit is particularly so.