Be Careful What You Wish For, or That Time I Finally Visited Centre Pompidou

Centre Pompidou (author photo)

This is the first of an occasional series of posts I will write on museums I have visited in recent years. These posts are not intended to be full-blown travel journalism, with all the details on what you’ll need to plan a visit. Rather, since all that info is readily available online, I will offer my own impressions and opinions of the places.

And so, it came to pass in April of this year that I returned to France. And it was a completely wonderful trip. More on the trip later. But one of places I have dreamed of visiting, for years and years, was Centre Pompidou.

In case you don’t know, a quick synopsis. The Pompidou Center, to give it it’s Anglicized name, is a huge complex in the heart of Paris. It encompasses multiple arts organizations within its six floors — most notably (for me, at least), the Musée National d’Art Moderne: France’s National Museum of Modern Art.

Late-career work by Kandinsky (author photo)

And what’s possibly even more exciting than the contents of that museum is the architecture of the building itself. The Pompidou was the first museum building designed by Renzo Piano and collaborators. In the 1970s, Piano was a young, unknown Italian architect. He has since designed many of the most famous art museums in the world (including, closer to home, the Menil Collection in Houston, the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, and the new building of the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth).

Built in the 1970s, the Pompidou Center is a building turned inside-out. Much, if not all, of its infrastructure is on the outside. Ducts, vents, escalators: all exposed. It looks amazing. It was controversial at the time, but is beloved by many, if not all, these days.

Young girl with a black cat (Marguerite), 1910, by Henri Matisse (author photo)

First, the good. The Pompidou contains a lot of amazing art, from a lot of famous 20th century artists the world over. And, interestingly, some from less-famous French artists. I saw some fabulous stuff from some of my favorites, like Sonia Delaunay, Wassily Kandinsky, Henri Matisse, and more. Even Chris Burden, whom I’m embarrassed to say, I only recently discovered. So in my view, the quality of the art on display is not in question.

What is in question — big time — is the function of this building. Yes, it is cool to look at. And no, it does not function well at all. Unless you live in Paris, and go there all the time, and get used to how it works. If you’re a tourist, even one who speaks a bit of French, comme moi, it is frustrating as hell!

So first of all, walking up to Centre Pompidou, it’s hard to tell which side is the front. Second, when you walk in a random door, you emerge into a giant space with no indication of what is where. There is a line leading to an entrance, but this is not the art museum. How did I figure that out? By looking at a sign? Mais non! By talking in my broken French to the, admittedly quite friendly, guy at the cash register.

I find out the art museum is on the fourth and fifth floors. He kindly directs me to the elevator, which is good because it is not easy to find. I take the elevator up to the fourth floor, and get off, looking to enter the museum. No signs here, either. I ask another person in broken French, how do I get in? It turns out that you can’t enter the fourth floor of the museum on the fourth floor: You must take the elevator up to the fifth floor, and then ride the escalator down to the fourth floor.

The view of Paris from the upper floors of the Pompidou can’t be beat. Notre Dame in the distance. (author photo)

I know what you’re thinking: Je ne sais plus! Or you would be thinking that, if you spoke French. It means “I can’t even.”

Suffice it to say, that was not the last of my adventures in Pompidou land, but I’ll leave out the remaining details. I’ll just say that they involved much riding up and down of escalators — in the heat, you understand, since they’re on the outside of the building — and looking for elevators, and taking the stairs when all else failed.

Part of the problem was, no doubt, that this was just about the last day of a two-week trip through France. While it had been fabulous, I was tired. And cranky. And ticked off about being kept from the art I wanted to see by a stupid building that was supposed to be a fabulous specimen of world architecture, dammit. No doubt when I return, and I will, I will enjoy it much more.

You know, they say the roofs leak in Frank Ghery’s buildings. It doesn’t do to learn too much about your heroes! Fin.


Published by Rebecca Johnson

Writer and editor covering arts and culture in Austin, Texas and beyond.

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