Lately, I have been feeling far more cynical than usual about the state of the world. The rise of conservative and nationalist movements has me worried for my fellow citizens and the most vulnerable among us. It also has me biting my nails about the upcoming French election (don’t worry, I will bring this around to the Centre Pompidou). But rather than become consumed by frustration and despondency, today I want to focus on something French presidents have become adept at over the last few decades: contributing new museums to the Parisian cultural landscape.
It has become a rite of passage for modern French presidents to fund and found a museum during their presidencies. In 2007, Jacques Chirac opened the Musée du Quai Branly on the banks of the Seine. This huge museum, with its mur végétal and lush green campus, is dedicated to multiculturalism and tribal histories of Pacific, Asian and African regions. In the early 1990s, François Mitterand recognised that the national library in the second arrondissement, while gorgeous, was far too small for France’s needs and opened the soaring Bibliothèque Nationale de France in the thirteenth arrondissement, with its own internal museum. Mitterrand also made his mark on France’s most lauded museum by commissioning the infamous Louvre Pyramid in the late 80s.
Not all these museum projects have been welcomed, mind you. Before François Hollande took up the country’s top job in 2012, Nicolas Sarkozy tried and – thankfully – failed to launch his own museum project, a well-intentioned but ill-informed Maison de l’Histoire de France on the site of the Archives Nationales. While a museum of national history may appear admirable, Sarkozy’s proposal was to focus on French military history and the grands hommes of France, with little to no acknowledgement of the role of women, inhabitants of former colonies, ethnic groups, migrants and other minorities in the nation’s story.
Now, I’m no fool; I’m aware that these museums are as much propaganda as they are a gift to the French people, and some have fallen flat. But one success story most can agree on is the Centre Pompidou, the modern and contemporary art museum commissioned by Georges Pompidou during his reign. As beloved as it is controversial, as eye-catching as it is jarring to look at, this Lego block of a museum building has dominated the Beaubourg district of the fourth arrondissement since the 1970s.
Hulking, stark and alien-looking, the Centre Pompidou is not exactly a pretty building. A rectangular brick of glass and plastic, its exhaust pipes, fans, escalators and gutters are all located on the building’s exterior and painted in bright primary colours. Against the stone curlicues of the Marais’ traditional architecture, it is inconspicuous to say the least. Plus with its predominance of white painted metal, it always looks just a little bit grimy.
But the Centre Pompidou is a glorious place. Its quirky exterior complements its unrivalled collection of twentieth-century art. Featured artists range from French figureheads like Braque, Matisse and Duchamp, to European superstars like Picasso, Dalí and Kandinsky, to American pop artists like Warhol and beyond. There is a balanced focus on both early twentieth-century movements like modernism and fauvism, and cutting-edge contemporary collections.
The Centre Pompidou is filled to the brim with world-class abstract and avant-garde art. It balances its white cube interior with the explosion of red, blue and yellow pipes on its outer walls. The bizarre nature of many of its works is reflected in the clear plastic escalator tubes that transport visitors up its exterior from floor to floor. Alongside its permanent and temporary collections, it is also home to a library, cinema and city viewing platform. The Centre Pompidou isn’t traditionally beautiful, and it doesn’t even look very presidential. But that’s part of its charm, and the building is more than a home to artworks; it’s an artwork in itself.