Masterpiece Theater

Metz, France

Left: French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Right: Architect Shigeru Ban (right). (All photos: Nicolas Trembley)

ADVERTISEMENTS WITH PHOTOGRAPHS of Warhol, Picasso, and Dalí—along with the slogan JE M’INSTALLE À METZ (I’m Moving to Metz)—greeted visitors on the platform of the TGV high-speed train that had been reserved by the French government for last Monday’s official opening of the Centre Pompidou-Metz. The museum is France’s first “decentralized” cultural institution; the Louvre will follow with outposts in Abu Dhabi and in Lens, France, both scheduled to open in 2012.

On the train one could overhear guests confessing, over coffee and macaroons, that this was the very first time they would set foot in Metz. And for those who still have no idea where it is, Metz is northeast of Paris, close to the borders of Germany, Luxembourg, and Belgium. (The city was also one of the most important French garrisons, which could explain why there were so many members of the military at the grand opening.) The creation of this new museum, thirty-three years after the opening of the Pompidou in Beaubourg, was no longer a subject of debate; rather, it seemed a source of pride in a cultural renaissance—at least on a national level, since most people at the opening were French. One exception was a young woman in a kimono, a friend of Shigeru Ban, the architect who, along with Jean de Gastines, was responsible for the eco-friendly building. Ban was chosen for the project largely due to the tenacity of artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, a member of the selection jury. “Well, it’s not the Bilbao Guggenheim,” a journalist remarked as we raced down the red carpet, which was soaking wet due to a downpour that a local hostess called—in the region’s charming jargon—“cow piss.”

Although certainly not as glamorous as Gehry’s iconic building, the Metz can boast a certain amount of autonomy, as its programming is not determined by its mother institution in Paris. The Metz is an attempt to return to “the original utopia of the Pompidou” by bringing together multiple genres and eras of art. (Not so different from promotional verbiage for the “New Festival” at the Pompidou last October.) At least, this is the goal of the museum’s director, Laurent Le Bon, who was walking up and down the aisles shaking hundreds of hands as he listened to abbreviated accolades: “sublime,” “fantastic,” “fabulous.”

Left: Martin Bethenod, director of Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana, with artist Bertrand Lavier. Right: Alain Seban, Centre Pompidou president.

Monday was the press preview, and on Tuesday there were four openings for the museum and an early (11 AM) visit from President Nicolas Sarkozy and former first lady Bernadette Chirac. There was much waiting and many speeches by a range of figures, from local officials to the Beaubourg’s president, Alain Seban, culminating with one by Sarkozy. Sarkozy also held a closed-door meeting with private collectors such as Antoine de Galbert of La Maison Rouge, the Guerlains, and Gilles Fuchs of ADIAF—an important group of private collectors who organize the Marcel Duchamp prize—artists like Xavier Veilhan and Pierre Bismuth, and designer Ronan Bouroullec. But there were no gallery owners at the meeting, and, most improbably, no information leaked out of it.

The opening exhibition, “Chefs-d’oeuvre?” (“Masterpieces?”), will be up for a year, so no one around here really has an excuse not to see it. Nearly eight hundred works are featured, mostly from the Paris museum’s collection, though others are on loan for the occasion from international institutions like the Museum of Modern Art in New York (indeed, among the works on display is MoMA ur-director Alfred H. Barr Jr.’s diagram of the origins and evolution of modern art). Le Bon asks the obvious questions: “What is a masterpiece today?” “Does that notion still make sense?” “Who decides what a masterpiece is?” “Is a masterpiece eternal?” The bulk of the (mostly male) “masters” in the show are dead (Braque, Matisse, Picasso), though a few are among the living, including Andreas Gursky, Quentin Tarantino (not present), Brice Dellsperger, and Yann Sérandour, undoubtedly the youngest artist (b. 1974) commissioned to produce a work for the occasion.

For some, this was an opportunity to criticize historical purchases: “The Pollock is too small,” some cad complained. The most virulent criticism, though, was directed at the rather dense hanging of the works, which at times obstructed the interior architecture (of which some would have liked to see more). “A three-foot distance between Miró’s three Bleus is just not enough,” someone sniffed. Others showed signs of the Stendhal syndrome, oohing and aahing over works by Nicolas de Staël and, to a lesser extent, Olivier Mosset. Everyone, however, regretted that Carla Bruni Sarkozy was not there. “She is our true national masterpiece.”

Left: Centre Pompidou-Metz director Laurent Le Bon. Right: The Centre Pompdiou-Metz.

Left: The train platform. Right: Artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster.

Left: Designer Patrick Jouin with Fondation Cartier curator Leanne Sacramone. Right: Dominique Gros, mayor of Metz.

Left: Artists Xavier Veilhan and Pierre Bismuth. Right: Bernadette Chirac.

Left: Collector Antoine de Galbert, owner of Maison Rouge. Right: Artists Pierre Joseph and Brice Dellsperger.

Left: Alfred Pacquement, director of the Centre Pompidou Paris. Right: Artist Fabrice Hyber.

Left: Jennifer Flay, general commissioner for FIAC. Right: Werner Spies, former director of the Centre Pompidou.

Left: Artists Yann Sérandour and designer Ronan Bouroullec. Right: Xavier Douroux, Le Consortium director.