Paris has finally found a good use for its Bourse de Commerce, an impressive circular building that was originally used as a wheat market in the eighteenth century. (I imagine that this was where Balzac’s Père Goriot made his fortune as a wholesale grain dealer during the French Revolution.)
François Pinault, a French billionaire art collector, has recently taken out a fifty-year lease on the building and developed it into museum to display often-changing selections from his huge collection of contemporary art. After a one-year delay due to the coronavirus pandemic, Pinault’s museum opened in May 2021.
Ironically, the largest and most conspicuous work of art in this contemporary art museum is not contemporary at all, but dates from the nineteenth century. Five artists spent nearly four years, from 1886 to 1889, creating a monumental fresco that stretches all around the building, just below the dome. In keeping with the building’s function at the time, the fresco was intended to represent the history of intercontinental trade — but from a decidedly colonialist perspective.
The original title of the fresco was “Triumphal France”. It was described by Roger Cohen in the New York Times (on May 25, 2021) as “a primer in the demeaning stereotypes of a Eurocentric colonized world where white traders did business with bare-chested African warriors.” In this respect, it reminds me of the façade of the Palais de la Porte Dorée in Paris, which is covered with bas-reliefs glorifying the French colonial system.
Included in the fresco is a nineteenth-century artists’ conception of America, with Indians, slaves, cowboys and a steam train. Above the train, in the sky, is a ghostly sailing ship which I found totally enigmatic — but which the Times article describes as “Christopher Columbus sweeping down from the sky in a caravel to find half-naked Native Americans.”
To this, the Times quoted François Pinault ias saying: “We were convinced for a long time that we constituted civilization, the most evolved people. I never accepted that.” He added: “We could have hidden the fresco — you can always hide something, that is cancel culture.”
The Times article also quotes Jean-Jacques Aillagon, the Pinault Collection’s chief executive, as saying: “When you show it, that does not mean you approve it. This was the image of trade at that moment, and you can’t think yesterday with the mind of today.”
The structure on the right in this photo is new, added by Pinault’s architects to delineate a major exhibition area. Reportedly, it was designed in such a way that it can be removed at the end of the fifty-year lease, if that is necessary. On the left is a part of the original building, recently renovated.
Large roofed-over structures like railway stations are often inhabited by pigeons congregating at the upper levels. Since the newly renovated Bourse de Commerce does not provide any entrances for live pigeons, one of the artists has collected fifty-some stuffed ones and placed them on two of the upper ledges.
Pinault’s taste in art apparently runs more towards installations than to framed paintings on the walls. Here an entire room is devoted to a player piano which plays only single notes in response to spectators moving around the room. The fish also float around the room in response to our movements. Exactly how this works is rather mysterious, but especially the children are quite persistent in trying to figure it out (if they jump or wave their arms, how do the fish and the piano react?), to the annoyance of their parents, who would prefer to move on to the next room.
Among the more whimsical installations is (or was, since the exhibits keep rotating in and out of the museum) this animatronic mouse by Ryan Gander, entitled “/… /… /…” (don’t ask me how to pronounce this) and dated 2019. I had to look up the word animatronic, and found that it means using machines controlled by computers to make a model move in a natural way.
The mouse is also learning to talk, but when I was there it only said single words, rather than complete sentences. As for what this all means, the artist was quoted on the museum’s website as saying: “If I knew the meaning of this mouse, it wouldn’t be a very good work of art.”
My photos and text in this post are from 2022.
See also: Bourse (Palais Brongniart) in Paris.