Kunstsammlung NRW
Foto: Studio eLBee via flickr.com

“Modernités Plurielles”: the curators of the Kunstsammlung visit the new installation of the permanent collection at the Centre Pompidou

A travel report for #32 by Nora Lukacs.

On one of the first hot summer days of the year, virtually the entire curatorial team of the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen set out for Paris, determined to have a close look at the controversial and much-discussed new presentation of the permanent collection at the Musée national d’art moderne.

In the context of current discussions of art, the Musée national subjected its permanent collection to a radical revision, opening the exhibition “Modernités Plurielles 1905−1970” in autumn of 2013. Thanks to a geographically and temporally expanded framework, the history of modern art is narrated now in a fresh way. Visitors will discover hundreds of artworks, all belonging to the permanent collection, none of which have been displayed previously – or if so, only rarely. The selection of works by painters, sculptors, and photographers from 47 different countries around the world opens up new perspectives, at the same time clarifying previously unrecognized interrelationships. Showcased as a consequence of this overtly critical interpretation of the canon – to remain on view until January 26, 2015 – is the formerly unknown pluralism of classical modernism.

The main features of the exhibition – the simultaneity of contrasting ideas and the diversity of formal languages found in different geographic regions – becomes clear already in the didactic opening gallery. Amédée Ozenfant’s enormous painting The Four Races hangs above an abstract bronze statue dating from the totemistic phase of the Argentinian artist Die Alicia Penalba: an homage to the Peruvian poet César Vallejo and his ideas about pantheistic love. On display opposite, as often in the studios of the early Cubist painters, or in exhibitions organized by the Surrealists, is an “authentic” African wooden totem, anonymous, undated. Ismael de la Serna’s painting Europa seems like a hallucinatory horror fantasy through which the painter – as early as 1935 – anticipates enslavement and the coming catastrophe in Europe. Spread out across another wall is a striking panorama of international avant-garde publications (from the collection of the Bibliothèque Kandinsky), from Buenos Aires to Ibadan to Moscow. This network of protagonists and intellectual nodal points of the period, visualized via a constellation of publications, accompanies the visitor as a recurrent motif throughout the exhibition as a whole.

Terms such as hybrid, local, belated, and anti-modern, which are generally used pejoratively in the classical historiography of twentieth century art, surface repeatedly in the context of the exhibition as a whole: a deliberate provocation on the part of the curator, Catherine Grenier. Her new presentation of the collection strives first and foremost to be an exhibition-manifesto, and an impetus and model for art museums throughout the West.

Above the Roofs of Paris: Seven Curators

After touring the exhibition, we met with Brigitte Léal, the museum's director of collections, in her office. The presentation was preceded by a multiyear phase of research, she explains, one that incorporated young scholars from around the world alongside experts in the individual thematic complexes. In Paris currently, the question of globality in art is of central significance: the Pompidou has even established an independent department – under the directorship of documenta ex-curator Catherine David – devoted exclusively to processes of mondialisation. Initiated here in particular are projects involving contemporary artists, and it is here that the expansion of the Pompidou into other regions, for example Mexico or Lebanon, is overseen.

In our discussion, we were interested in particular, of course, in the response of the public to Modernités plurielles – an exhibition that has been vigorously criticized in the media. It is well-known that the project is no longer on view in its original form: since it opened in 2013, a number of rooms have been reconfigured. The reason for this is not only the presence of a new museum director, but also a flood of complaints from visitors, who missed certain “highlights” of the collection. The compromise solution is an “allée of masterworks” that runs through the exhibition as a central axis, and features well-known works by Amedeo Modigliani, Giorgio de Chirico, Pablo Picasso, and Francis Bacon. Also inserted into the presentation subsequently were masterpieces by Henri Matisse, along with very recent acquisitions.

Global Art: Made in France

A remarkable aspect of the project is that a large proportion of the unfamiliar works it highlights, including some utterly unfamiliar ones that were actually produced in Paris and in France. Examples include the Japanese brush paintings of Léonard Tsugouharu Foujita, which often depict prewar French interiors, or the calligraphic abstractions of the Iranian artist Hossein Zenderoudi. The reason for this, explains Catherine Grenier, the exhibition’s curator and current director of the Giacometti Foundation, lies in the history of the collection of the Musée national d'art modern, housed in the Centre Pompidou since 1977. Brought together here were two large collections. First, there was the collection of the Musée du Luxembourg, known as the museum for contemporary artists, which collected French art, and was mainly academically oriented around 1900. Second, there was the collection of the Musée des Écoles Étrangères in the Jeu de Paume, with its focus on foreign artists who were nonetheless active in Paris. Not only did this institution organize exhibitions of work by international artists (it was here that Picasso, Chagall, and Modigliani had their first exhibitions in a French national institution), it made purchases as well. Gifts were accepted as well, most of them from artists who wished to donate works produced in Paris to the French capital before returning to their home countries. Organized there as well between the world wars were exhibitions of works from friendly nations – not least for diplomatic purposes. This included wide-ranging presentations of Chinese, Japanese, and North American art, as well as a series of exhibitions featuring European artists; many of the exhibited works were ultimately purchased. Today, the collection provides an invaluable survey of the cosmopolitan School of Paris – a large proportion of which, however, remained hidden from view in storage depots until the current presentation.

The new presentation of the collection in the Centre Pompidou opens up remarkable perspectives onto a global, multifaceted reception of modernism. Only with qualifications, however, does it succeed in taking up its own collecting history as the point of departure for an interrogation of the Eurocentric point of view and the hegemony of Paris as the capital of the twentieth century.

Nora Lukacs is a assistant curator at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen. A native of Hungary, she has been intensively preoccupied recently with global tendencies in modernity.

Website Centre Pompidou