Histoire(s) d'une Collection



Centre Pompidou


Place Georges Pompidou, 75004 Paris


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+33 (0)1 44 78 12 33

Working hours:
Open: Every day from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. (exhibition areas close at 9 p.m.) Thursdays until 11 p.m. (only exhibitions on level 6). Closed: Tuesdays and 1st of May

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Histoire(s) d'une Collection

25 May 2018 - 7 Jan 2019

This new circuit revisits the history of the Musée National d’Art Moderne's collections as we celebrate the bicentenary of the Musée des Artistes Vivants, of which it is one of the heirs. This "retrospective" of the museum's collections is laid out in some fifteen sections scattered through the modern circuit. 
Over 120 works, accompanied by an all-new documentary system, explore the identity of the Musée National d’Art Moderne and its predecessors from the 1920s to the opening of the Centre Pompidou.

Curator's point of view

Once a year a new sequence of dossier exhibitions comes to punctuate the visitor’s path through the Centre Pompidou’s collections, offering a new angle on the history of 20th-century art. From cross-passage displays to vitrines to dedicated rooms, these resources for study and research cast light on neglected aspects of the story. Following a sequence devoted to “The Listening Eye” that explored links between the visual arts and music from 1905 to the mid-1960s, this new instalment looks at the history of the collections of the Musée National d’Art Moderne (MNAM), and this on the bicentennial of the foundation of its forerunner, the Musée des Artistes Vivants.

The fruit of a long-term research project conducted with a number of partners, among them the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art, the Musée d’Orsay, the Archives Nationales and the Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, this “retrospective” of the Museum’s holdings is organised in fifteen sections dispersed along the main route through the modern collections. Accompanied by illuminating historical documentation, this selection of more than 120 works explores the self-understanding of the MNAM and predecessors, the Musée des Artistes Vivants (or Musée de Luxembourg) and the Musée du Jeu de Paume. How did they react to the art that was being made? What were the positions they took up as contemporary art triumphed? Punctuating the display of the main collection – organised around a succession of crucial masterpieces – the various sections of this unique project show in what way institutional acquisition decisions related– or failed to relate – to contemporary artistic developments.

Founded in 1818, the Musée du Luxembourg is considered to be the very first museum of contemporary art. A place of interim approval, it served as a kind of purgatory where artists awaited promotion or relegation: ten years after their deaths, the works of those whose “reputation ha[d] been confirmed in the general opinion” were transferred to the Louvre, while the others were assigned to public institutions or provincial museums. Despite the transient character of its holdings, the Luxembourg quickly became “overcrowded, desperately overcrowded”, and in 1922 the works of foreign artists were transferred to the gallery at the Jeu de Paume, in the Tuileries, which would become a museum in its own right a few years later.

The first sections, then, are devoted to these two forerunners of the MNAM. With views of their galleries blown up to the scale of the walls and a selection of some of the more significant works acquired, they invite visitors to immerse themselves in the history of these departed institutions, witnessing how slow they were to keep up with their times. Yet some qualifications are due: while the Musée du Luxembourg’s acquisitions policy was timid and still influenced by 19th-century taste – so that the first Cubist painting joined the collection only in 1933, while orientalist paintings were bought in number – the Jeu de Paume was much more open to the avant-garde, as witnessed by the exhibition “Origines et développement de l’art international indépendant” of 1937, in which paintings by Kandinsky hung alongside works by Picasso, Dalí, Mondrian and Hartung. Questions of taste aside, however, both museums suffered from a shortage of funds that limited their ability to grow their collections.

The middle sections locate the make-up of the collections within a wider problematic touching on both political history and cultural diplomacy. The numerous donations by figures close to the Mussolini regime are thus linked to the history of Franco-Italian relations. Similarly, the exhibition of French art staged in Berlin in 1937, carefully screened to exclude Jewish or “degenerate” artists, illustrates the tortuous path taken by a failed effort at Franco-German rapprochement.

That same year, a ministerial decree created the Musée National d’Art Moderne, and the collections of the Musée du Luxembourg and the Musée du Jeu de Paume were gradually reunited in the new home that was built for it: the Palais de Tokyo. There they would remain until 1976 and the opening of the Centre Beaubourg, and the last sections focus on these three crucial decades. Having half-opened under the German occupation, the MNAM – whose acquisitions policy during that period is for the first time examined here – went on to reinvent itself at the Liberation, thanks to the energy of its new director, Jean Cassou, who succeeded in convincing both politicians and artists of the importance of supporting the growth of the collection, if it were to be worthy of Paris as the great centre of modern art. Major donations helped fill the lacunae accumulated over the years, as would a number of substantial bequests in the 1960s and ’70s.

The sequence ends with a group of works linked to preparations for the opening of the Centre Pompidou between 1973 and 1977. Under the influence of Pontus Hultén, newly appointed director of the MNAM, these years saw a decisive turn to contemporary art and an opening toward the international scene. It also saw the creation, for the first time, of collections dedicated to photography and film.

Throughout the sequence, the various sections testify to a debate on the very nature of a “museum of modern art”. Particular attention is given to museum architecture. In fact, given the chronic lack of space, a number of projects succeeded each other through the years, from the idea of transferring the collection to the Séminaire Saint-Sulpice to Le Corbusier’s many projects for a perpetually expandable museum, which he worked on from 1930 to 1964. None of these would come to fruition. Designed by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, the Centre Pompidou opened its doors on 31 January 1977, marking the start of a new era for the collections of the Musée National d’Art Moderne.

in Code Couleur, n°31 may-august 2018, pp.24-27.


Image on top: Robert Delaunay, « La verseuse », 1916


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