The stately boulevard of the Champs-Elysées is a misleading place. Tourists think Paris’ most famous street will be the height of stereotypical French elegance. Many expect it to show off the best French gastronomie has to offer. But for many, the Champs-Elysées is a disappointment. The restaurants are mediocre and overpriced and the shops are mostly multinational chains. The Champs-Elysées, that famed boulevard cutting through the 8th arrondissement, is not a good place to dine, nor is it a good place to shop.
And yet, the imposing street which lies on a direct axis linking up the Louvre, Tuileries, Concorde, Arc de Triomphe and Grande Arche de la Défense, hosts some museum treasures. Families and science lovers will be drawn to the Palais de la Découverte, while art connoisseurs will love the charming Petit Palais, the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Paris.
But the finest gem along the Champs-Elysées is the Grand Palais, a giant exhibition space built in 1897 in preparation for the World’s Fair (the event that also led to the Eiffel Tower’s construction). The stunning glass building catches the eye from any raised viewpoint in the city. It is lofty, spacious and sometimes overwhelming. Indeed its neighbour, the aforementioned Petit Palais, is far from petit, but gains its name from the contrast with its sister institution across the road.
The Grand Palais doesn’t have a permanent collection, but instead hosts some of the highest-profile and most ambitious of the city’s temporary exhibitions. I still think about the Anish Kapoor architectural installation I saw there in 2011 sometimes. In the Palais’ largest hall, among the Belle Epoque glass and steel, Kapoor installed a gigantic, deep red structure. Visitors could climb inside and see the faint red glow of natural light emanating through. It was like being inside a lung, a balloon, a vein, a womb.
Just as impressive was the exhibition I saw this year in the Palais’ art gallery space, ‘Le Mexique- 1900-1950’. This brilliant collection of 20th-century artworks from Mexico’s most revolutionary and avant-garde artists, from Kahlo to Orozco to Rivera and beyond, dominated the Paris art scene through the winter.
From the outside, the Grand Palais looks like a staple of the established, imposing Paris the 8th arrondissement has come to represent. But despite its classical facade, the Palais welcomes exhibitions that push boundaries, look beyond borders and celebrate the avant-garde. Perhaps the Champs-Elysées isn’t such a disappointment after all.