Henri Matisse, La Tristesse du roi (The Sorrows of the King), 1952, gouache on canvas, 9' 6 7/8“ x 12' 7 7/8”. © Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Henri Matisse, La Tristesse du roi (The Sorrows of the King), 1952, gouache on canvas, 9' 6 7/8“ x 12' 7 7/8”. © Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


THE INAUGURAL SHOW at the new Centre Pompidou in Metz, France, demonstrates just what a well-thought-out exhibition can do. Although several reviewers saw the show as merely presenting a hit parade of mostly French classics borrowed from the rich collections of its partner in Paris, the museum’s director, Laurent Le Bon, and a handful of cocurators took on a much more challenging task. In fact, the exhibition—as the question mark in its title, “Chefs-d’oeuvre?” (Masterpieces?), implies—addresses both the evolving meaning of the term masterpiece and the factors that contribute to works acquiring and maintaining this status. Although the subject has been a topic of scholarly concern for more than thirty years, this is the first exhibition to take the idea of the masterpiece as its focus.

Henri Matisse, La Tristesse du roi (The Sorrows of the King), 1952, gouache on canvas, 9' 6 7/8“ x 12' 7 7/8”. © Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The show concentrates on art that emerged between 1863 and 1960 in France. Some eight hundred works are stunningly installed over fifty thousand square feet on four floors of a brand-new building designed by Shigeru Ban and Jean de Gastines. This “provincial” museum hopes to offer something relatively rare: thematic exhibitions that present a rereading of art of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. On view in this initial exhibition are the likes of Auguste Rodin’s L’Homme qui marche (Man Walking), 1900; Hans Bellmer’s La Poupée (The Doll), 1935; and Jackson Pollock’s Number 26A: Black and White, 1948. Large installations are devoted to figures less canonical in France, Martial Raysse and Giuseppe Penone among them. In addition, the filmmaker Luc Moullet and the choreographer Jérôme Bel created works responding to the show’s theme. The quality and variety of the art on view will captivate not just a broad-based public but also the most highbrow connoisseur.

Seventeen galleries on the ground floor address the question of how the concept of the masterpiece has changed over the centuries. A giant mirror suspended over much of this space reminds those who look upward of the role that viewers play in this process. In an age characterized by zealous attention to museum attendance figures, the draw of shows featuring “masterpieces” guarantees that these will be served up time and again. The reflective surface subtly suggests what this entails: that the presence or absence of museum visitors can make a difference in the kind of exhibitions that might be put on view.

Under the title “Masterpieces Throughout History,” the presentation in these rooms begins with Henri Matisse’s La Tristesse du roi (The Sorrows of the King), 1952. A wall text explains that the artist considered the work to be “equal to all my best paintings.” This declaration gets at one of the most enduring definitions of a masterpiece: It supposedly embodies not just the best but the essence of an artist’s achievement. In an adjacent space, the viewer encounters a large etymological chart investigating the history of the phrase chef-d’oeuvre, revealing that the term has its origins in the Middle Ages. Nearby are sculptures by medieval artisans from Metz, a town still dominated by the masterpiece of its Gothic cathedral (which is beautifully framed by a large window in the last gallery in the museum).

Among the highlights on the first floor is a suite of eight of Pablo Picasso’s late drawings, Le Peintre et son Modèle, 1970. These crayon-on-cardboard images take up a theme present in the artist’s work at least since the etchings he made between 1927 and 1931 in response to Honoré de Balzac’s “Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu” (The Unknown Masterpiece, 1831). Balzac’s story meant so much to Picasso that in 1937 he moved into the building in which it allegedly unfolded. Although the masterpiece he painted there that year—Guernica—could not be borrowed for this show, a huge 1976 tapestry of the painting is on view nearby, on loan from the Musée d’Unterlinden in Colmar, France. A few galleries later the viewer encounters Rodin’s Balzac, Robe de chambre, 1897, a fragile life-size plaster cast of the writer’s dressing gown made shortly before the completion of the sculptor’s Monument à Balzac. When the latter work was exhibited at the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1898, its near-abstract formlessness caused a scandal for its contravention of the norms of a public monument; only gradually was it recognized as one of Rodin’s greatest works. Edward Steichen’s 1908 photograph Balzac, which hangs nearby, underscores the sculpture’s drama. (Indeed, Rodin once told the photographer: “Your photographs will make the world understand my Balzac!”) In the last gallery of this floor one finds Joan Miró’s large-scale triptych Bleu I, Bleu II, Bleu III, 1961, characterized by the artist as the culmination of everything he had “tried to do.”

These galleries point to a second agenda of this ambitious exhibition: disclosing how the tastes of certain dealers, collectors, and cultural officials helped to shape French identity during the twentieth century. Jean Cassou, the chief curator of the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris between 1945 and 1965, was so sure about the importance of Matisse’s Tristesse du roi that he bought it the year it was made. Nevertheless, Cassou’s acquisition policy generally followed more conservative trends, which helps explain the presence here of work by figures such as Othon Friesz, Maurice Utrillo, and Maurice de Vlaminck, once the rage of their day and now largely forgotten.

The show’s second section is titled “Stories Behind Masterpieces.” It offers a startlingly reflexive history of isms and those masterpieces associated with them, often juxtaposed with less celebrated works of art. A room devoted to Surrealism, for instance, features Luis Buñuel’s L’Âge d’or (1930) opposite collages and paintings by Max Ernst from the late ’20s and early ’30s. Several of Jean Renoir’s films are projected in nearby galleries. There are significant works by artists who gained recognition in France relatively late, such as Marcel Duchamp and Louise Bourgeois. Niki de Saint Phalle and Ben Vautier are also featured here, as representatives, respectively, of Nouveau Réalisme and Fluxus—two strains still largely alien to mainstream histories of art.

A small gallery is devoted to Alfred H. Barr Jr.’s 1936 hand-drawn diagrams proposing a genealogy of the origins and evolution of modern art. These drawings had profound consequences for the collecting policies of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, under Barr’s directorship and after. Indeed, the international dimension of the show is perhaps clearest here, as the interconnections between American and French cultural politics are revealed: Initially, MoMA thought its relationship to the Metropolitan Museum of Art would be like that of Musée du Luxembourg to the Louvre, meaning that from time to time it would transfer works from its collection of living artists to the more prestigious institution (the policy was quickly scrapped). Girl in a Mirror, a 1940 painting by the “naive painter” Morris Hirshfield, is also to be seen here. MoMA’s retrospective of this American folk artist in 1943 caused such controversy that Barr was forced temporarily to resign from the museum. Such twists and turns in the history of tastemaking illuminate the stakes involved when museums show art that doesn’t accord with prevailing views.

View of “Chefs-d’oeuvre?” (Masterpieces?), 2010. Photo: Roland Halbe.

On the third floor the visitor enters a darkened wide corridor. To the right, a selection of brightly illuminated masterpieces of twentieth-century sculpture and painting can be glimpsed through a series of cutouts in the wall—the only access is through each end of the corridor and through an opening in the middle. This installation leaves no doubt about the role that display methods play in our reception of certain works of art as masterpieces. On the left wall of the corridor are detailed labels, photographs, and eight video clips, including Hans Namuth’s 1951 documentary of Jackson Pollock at work, as well as extracts from Jean-Marie Drot’s 1963 film on Alberto Giacometti. By allowing only a partial view of the works to the right, the installation makes a point of separating the didactic material from the actual works of art. This “grand gallery of labels” prioritizes narrative and documentary—or mythologizing—information over the direct encounter with individual works. The point is to make the viewer aware that an overreliance on such material not only distracts attention from the art itself but also encourages a one-sided appreciation of it.

Standing before Fernand Léger’s La Lecture, 1924; Max Ernst’s Capricorn, 1948/1964; Yves Klein’s ANT 76, Grande Anthropophagie bleue, Hommage à Tennessee Williams, 1960—and the rest of the twenty-four sculptures and paintings on the other side of the wall—was, for me, the highlight of a summer otherwise filled with disappointing exhibitions. The works are chronologically presented, bracketed by two unconventional “masterpieces”: Georges Méliès’s 1902 film Le Voyage dans la lune and the NASA video of man’s first steps on the moon. (A tip of the hat to one of the masterpieces of Jules Verne might have made a nice addendum: His novel De la Terre à la lune [From the Earth to the Moon, 1865] not only inspired Méliès’s film but described the shape of the spaceship and number of astronauts that actually would go to the moon more than a hundred years later.)

On the other side of this space, twenty-odd chairs are hung high on the wall. Exhibiting them in this manner makes their utilitarian function irrelevant. In one fell swoop, this humorous touch reveals how much notions of style dictate our decisions about what types of works can qualify as masterpieces. And as if all this were not enough, the enormous space facing these chairs holds twenty-eight models of museums designed in France between 1937 and the present. (Complementing the huge and lavishly illustrated catalogue to the body of the show, a second catalogue details the history of these milestones of French public architecture.)

On the fourth floor, in “Masterpieces ad Infinitum,” the viewer is brought full circle. Here are all twenty of the original paper cutouts Matisse created for the book Jazz (1947). Rarely exhibited in their entirety, they remind us of the role that illustrated books and lithographs played in promoting the notion of masterpieces among a broader public. A marvel of French museum holdings is also included: the vitrine La Transhumance, ca. 1890–1956. Created for the Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires under its influential director Georges-Henri Rivière, this arrangement of period objects makes eerily present the annual journey of a shepherd and his flock into the mountains. Suspending from invisible thread the trappings of the group’s procession—peasant’s garments, the animals’ yokes and bells—allows the scene to attain a ritualistic, quasi-mythical dimension. Curious about André Malraux’s “Musée imaginaire”? Here you have a chance to see some of its concepts made visible. What’s more, you can study in depth Marcel Broodthaers’s and Duchamp’s versions of museums.

All four sections of this exhibition will be on view until January 17 (the various parts close incrementally until August of next year). None of them should be missed.

Pamela Kort is a Berlin-based art historian and curator.