How do you manage a dictatorship? By producing ‘a succession of miracles’, according to Louis-Napoléon, that ‘dazzle and astonish’. In 1852 he inaugurated his Second Empire regime with a strategy of soft power predicated on the assumption that the loyalty of politically volatile Paris was to be won not by violent repression but by visible magnificence and grand designs. This wasn’t an original idea: it followed the policies of le Roi Soleil and Bonaparte, not to mention the Roman emperors. It worked again for Louis-Napoléon because, as well as such jaw-dropping follies as Charles Garnier’s extravagant opera house, it extended to Haussmann’s lavish investment in socially useful boulevards, sewers, housing and parks.
Subsequent incumbents of the Élysée Palace have seldom been able to resist this tendency to splash out on spectacular gestures, and the past half-century has seen taxpayers’ money showered on the capital’s cultural sector in particular. The high-tech ‘miracle’ of the Pompidou Centre, opened in 1977, started a fresh wave of state-sponsored public treats that no other nation can match – among them the Opéra Bastille, I.M. Pei’s ‘pyramid’ at the Louvre, the reinvention of the Gare d’Orsay, Jean Nouvel’s Quai Branly, the ‘music city’ at Parc de la Villette, plus a wealth of top-to-bottom renovations, all trumpeting la gloire de la France. Berlin has recently played catch-up, but London looks stingy in comparison – the British Museum’s feeble new exhibition wing and inadequate air-conditioning being only one egregious embarrassment.
Yet many feel that billions have been squandered – a view on which Marine Le Pen and Éric Zémmour have capitalised – and that we Brits have got better bang for our buck, not least as so many of our lollipops have been financed by the Lottery rather than the Treasury. And some of Paris’s most prestigious new monuments are widely disliked and ineffectual; the Opéra Bastille, for example, has poor acoustics and all the allure of an airport lounge.
But Emmanuel ‘Jupiter’ Macron – a man of considerable erudition and musical accomplishment, who believes that ‘without culture, there is no Europe’ and that France sets the terms – has continued to wave his sceptre and dispense largesse. With Paris’s socialist mayor, Anne Hidalgo, to second him, his culture budget has seen a 15 per cent rise in real terms since 2017 (England has seen a broadly comparative drop of 20 per cent over the same period), and his post-election appointment of the impressively qualified Rima Abdul Malak as culture minister stands in stark contrast to Boris Johnson’s resort to the bafflingly inept Nadine Dorries.
My visit to Paris after an absence of seven years was disconcerting: the city is not quite itself. As the ubiquitous graffiti and security checks illustrate, the mood is still palpably coloured by the Bataclan and Charlie Hebdo attacks of 2015 and 2020, adding an extra layer of anxiety to the ongoing ravages of the pandemic. The rough sleeping, litter and vacant shop fronts are as depressingly evident as they are in London, and the fly-posters promoting the far-right candidates, torn and scrawled over, only add to the tension. Even in glorious spring weather, this is not a happy place.
But the gewgaws keep coming. The most spectacular of them is the Bourse de Commerce, a mecca for modern art housed in a 19th-century stock exchange, redundant since the turn of the millennium, on the edge of Les Halles. It opened in May 2021 and is drawing the crowds, though rather like Tate Modern, it is the building rather than its contents that is proving the prime attraction.
Billionaire munificence – or vanity, or two fingers – is behind it: the money has been put up by industrialist and collector François Pinault in anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better competition with Louis Vuitton’s CEO, Bernard Arnault, who hit the headlines and won plaudits in 2014 when his Fondation opened a behemoth of a gallery to display its holdings, flamboyantly designed by Frank Gehry in the Bois de Boulogne at a reputed cost of £700 million.
Pinault has been somewhat more frugal. Having secured the Bourse on a favourable 50-year lease from the mayor, he has spent a footling £150 million on restoring and transforming its great circular chamber, inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, into exhibition space. Inside its inner perimeter, the Japanese architect Tadao Ando has built a circular wall in perforated concrete, ‘like a thin fruit peel’. The galleries run over several levels in side rooms around the central floor. It is all very white, spare and cool.
The trouble is that it also feels weirdly empty: one is reminded of that children’s party game pass the parcel, in which layer upon layer of wrapping paper is removed to uncover nothing but a paltry bag of sweets or a plastic whistle. The grandeur of the Bourse’s dimensions and the austere beauty of Ando’s wall ‘dazzle and astonish’, but the art on display – exhibitions of the cerebral, elliptically erotic American sculptor Charles Ray; cast-glass cubes by Roni Horn; video by the likes of Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Jeremy Deller, all drawn from Pinault’s personal trove – seems merely the incidental decoration.
Much more satisfying are two superb makeovers of existing public collections, curated with exemplary taste and a welcome absence of the infantilising finger-wagging and trigger warnings that currently disease Anglo-American museums: facts are stated on the labels, but objects are left to communicate their own significance.
The Musée Carnavalet in the Marais is Paris’s equivalent of the Museum of London: its five-year restoration project was completed in July last year. Anomalous in this capital in being free to enter yet blissfully quiet and easy to navigate, it offers a delightful survey of the city since Roman times, one evocative highlight being a reconstruction of Proust’s bedroom, containing the bed in which he wrote much of À la recherche du temps perdu and his fur-lined coat. If the collection appears to skate swiftly over the years of Nazi occupation, that is only because all aspects of that national trauma are comprehensively covered by the Musée de la Libération, accommodated since 2019 in a pavilion at Place Denfert-Rochereau. This too is free, and the story it tells is both horrifying and enthralling.
Opening only in May after its own two-year revamp, the Musée de Cluny at Saint-Michel is focused on French art during the Middle Ages: situated on the rambling remains of Roman baths and medieval abbey buildings, its winding stairs and warren of corridors have always defeated disabled access but the architect Bernard Desmoulin has solved the problems with a restrained elegance that never detracts from the unique atmosphere of the place. Bravo.
A further novelty is the Hôtel de la Marine, which opened to the public in June 2021. Formerly the naval ministry, it sits on the north side of the Place de Concorde, its rigorously neo-classical frontage obviously the model for Aston Webb’s dreary façade for Buckingham Palace. Its interior is staggering if exhausting – an enfilade of gorgeously furnished rooms of the Louis Seize era, appealing to those like Henry James who ‘can stand a great deal of gold’. Avoid the whimsical audio guide and just let the mind wander.
As Paris approaches its 2024 Olympics, the succession of miracles will continue, with the scheduled reopening of both the reconstructed Nôtre-Dame and its prime exhibition space, the Grand Palais (a four-year closure, a £400 million budget). Out, however, goes the Pompidou Centre, poorly insulated and due for its second substantial renovation in 2023, when it will shut for four years at a cost of £220 million. It seems a pity that meanwhile a major scheme to improve the cramped and chaotic Gare du Nord, terminal for Eurostar and lines to Brussels and Amsterdam, has been scaled back –a decision that the ghost of Haussmann, a visionary more concerned with urban utility than gift-wrapped art, must surely deplore.
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