Sometimes, the smallest things in art can have the greatest significance – in the case of Ingres’s ‘Odalisque’, it’s three vertebrae added to the spine of his lady of the harem. They are a clear anatomical error, and contradict the teaching of Ingres's tutor, Jacques-Louis David. The three vertebrae are a manifesto – displeasing the critics, who denounced the image violently – Ingres is showing that art need not submit itself to realism, and that the painter can sometimes sacrifice verisimilitude to the advantage of beauty.
The Musée d'Art Moderne
Perhaps what Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) did best was to fill daily scenes with light and colour – particularly with his series of paintings of his wife Marthe in the bath. A particularly fascinating variation on this theme, ‘Nu dans le bain’ at the Musée d’Art Moderne offers a slightly hallucinatory vision of Madame floating languorously in the water. The blurred forms, the mixture of colours and the light playing on the water, the parquet and on Marthe’s wet skin create a strange confusion between the exterior and interior worlds in the bathroom.
Cézanne painted bathers hundreds of times; this particular canvas was a favourite of Matisse, who bought it in 1899 and kept it, jealously guarded, at his private home for nearly 40 years before giving it to the Petit Palais in 1936. Admiring the composition, he called it ‘very dense’, all in dramatic diagonals. The composition is full of movement, the three figures seeming to blend with the verdant scene around them – it almost smells of the wild, and offers a foretaste of Cubism.
Active at a time when most artists were dabbling in avant-garde experimentation and everyone was either for or against impressionism, Jean-Jacques Henner was remarkable for being none of these things. The Alsatian painter is often styled as the last romantic, but he wasn't against new trends – he championed the likes of Manet, and displayed some experimental tendencies in his own work. For this painting, a commission from the Sorbonne, Henner initially painted a first draft, before simply rotating the canvas by 90 degrees and repainting a second directly over it – hence the phantasmic female figure lying horizontally across the painting. Recently restored, it's one of the highlights of this forgotten painter's oeuvre.
The flagship exhibit of the newly renovated Musée Zadkine, 'Rebecca' stands guard over the gallery, bathed in the sunlight that filters through the glass roof above her. The jug that she shoulders marks her out as one of the Russian sculptor's 'water-bearers', a motif that recurs throughout his oeuvre (check out 'Stella' in the next room). Her plaster surface is pockmarked with the blemishes of the wood from which she was cast, and her oddly disproportional anatomy – short legs, elongated torso – hint at the influence of the freely expressionist language of African sculpture. 'Rebecca' is a paragon of the styles and themes that preoccupied this most eccentric of artists, and a perfect introduction to the work on show in this charming museum.
When he painted this harlequin in 1923, Picasso was already an art world superstar. Since the armistice in 1918, his works had been touring the capital in the most popular exhibitions of the day. At a time when classicism was making a comeback in post-war Paris, he played perhaps more than ever with the divions between the academy and the avant-garde. He painted the harlequin subject many times – this example (a portrait of his painter friend Joaquín Salvado) is half drawn straight onto the canvas, half painted with extraordinarily fine execution. Condensing different styles, almost like a collage, he celebrates the artifice of artistic representation and shows us, behind his classical airs, a furiously modern temperament.
The reign of Jayavarman VII saw the return of the Khmers to Cambodia and Angkor: after a long exile, the king reclaimed his territories. Perhaps disappointed in the protection his religion had offered, the king turned from Hinduism to Mahayana Buddhism, which he installed as the state religion.
This change engendered a new aesthetic, and explains the sobriety of this sandstone head. The sovereign appears very humble, eyes lowered, at peace. The ‘smile of Angkor’, gentle and enigmatic, hovers around his mouth. There’s no finery or royal insignia here – the power of the reconquering monarch is self-evident in the clean lines of his skull and the serene harmony that emanates from the stone. One of the masterpieces in the history of sculpture, the symbol of a brilliant period that came to an end in the middle of the 13th century with the return of Hinduism.
In the 1870s, Paris's haute société was trying to work out what it made of the art scene's Young Turks, the impressionists. The establishment wasn't convinced. 'Five or six nutters, including one woman; a bunch of miserable people struck down by the madness of ambition,' is how the journalist Albert Wolff pithily described them. The woman in question was Berthe Morisot, in many respects the equal of her colleagues, yet far less well known today. Her striking style is on full display in this, one of her more famous pieces, painted at the peak of her powers and ambition. The interplay of light and shade, the way in which the red of the flowers magnifies the woman's paleness, the specks of silver that pepper the canvas, all prove her mastery of colour and tone. The lady's expression, meanwhile, is a study in ambiguity, her seductive mouth offset by a certain gravity in her gaze. On the strength of this portrait alone, Morisot deserves to be reappraised.
Historical sources tell us that Philippe le Beau seduced girls like nobody's business; yet in this late-15th-century portrait, the young Castilian monarch doesn't exactly exude sex appeal. He appears slight and effete, the bird of prey perching delicately on his wrist a symbol of his nobility. We don't know who for sure painted it (though some have pointed to an artist by the title of Maître de la Légende deSsainte Marie-Madeleine), but that doesn't prevent us from admiring its intimate beauty.
Hewn from the same block of marble but diametrically opposed in style, these two figures allude to the tragic dichotomies that frame human existence: beauty and ugliness, youth and decrepitude, life and death. Antoine Bourdelle produced this masterpiece while studying under Rodin, and while his master’s classicism is in evidence, it’s already being distorted by a nascent modernist sensibility – a very 20th-century anguish, manifested in the expressionist contortions of the Night figure. Two generations, two centuries, facing off within the confines of a single sculpture – something few works of art can boast.
Comic strips and ecclesiastic history collide spectacularly in this 45m-long mural, which recounts the life of Saint Stephen through 23 scenes displayed across three rooms. Each scene is accompanied by a short synopsis in medieval French, as well as the reported speech of the featured characters in Latin. Just as France and Belgium are predominant in the world of graphic novels today, so Gauthier de Campes, the artist believed to have painted the mural in the early 16th century, was chiefly active in Brussels and Paris. Indeed, the clothes and hairstyles in the 'Tenture' reflect the Nordic-influenced fashions of Renaissance Paris. Meanwhile, the protagonists’ expressions and gesticulations suggest a certain humour that anticipates today's comic books.
Sadly, few of Paolo Uccello's paintings have survived – but the ones that have suggest a pioneering and highly innovative approach to perspective. Caught between 14th-century Florentine art and High Renaissance style, Uccello's works combine features of both, as this depiction of Saint George and the dragon attests: in the foreground, the protagonists parade flatly on a two-dimensional plane, while a landscape stretches imperfectly behind them. On the left hand side, the trees, buildings and people fail to conform to natural proportions, while on the right, Uccello pulls off a more credible horizon. It's a remarkable synthesis, pointing at once to the past and to the future of painting.
If you were expecting the 'Mona Lisa' to crop up in our selection, you'll be disappointed. As the smiling lady continues to draw the crowds of Nikon-wielding tourists, the rest of the Louvre's exhibits lose out – perhaps none more so than Leonardo's other paintings. Case in point: this unfinished scene of the baby Jesus, Mary and her mother Anne. The composition is typically ambitious, Mary's embrace of her child paralleled by his gesture toward the lamb – a symbol of the sacrifice that will drag him into the symbolic abyss, represented in the foreground. No wonder old Leo spent the last 20 years of his life trying to polish it off. The painting was subjected to a controversial restoration in 2012, from which (according to experts) Anne's face emerged a tad coarser than it had been. Say what you will; for her 500 years, she looks admirably well preserved to us.
Moreau was incontestably one of the great masters of symbolism. His work was created in opposition to the dominant forms of his day, offering those who looked for it a glimpse into his strange, poetic and fascinating imagination. At the end of his life he chose to leave his atelier and all his works to the French state, on the condition that it would all be transformed into a permanent museum. Cluttered with innumerable paintings, the museum itself is like a work of art. This version of ‘L’Apparition’ is less well-known than its twin at the Musée d’Orsay, but no less fascinating. It shows a passage from the Bible: the myth of Salomé with the head of Jean-Baptiste. Next to the innumerable painters who have addressed this subject over the centuries, Moreau is an enfant terrible, exploring his subject without any constraints on his imagination.
Chutzpah, stacks of cash and a burning desire to amass masterpieces – that's all you need in order to end up with three Rembrandts on your hands. During France's Second Empire Edouard André, the son of an absurdly wealthy banker, got his dad to bankroll his shopping sprees, the fruits of which are housed in the Musée Jacquemart-André. This canvas, which shows Jesus revealing himself to two pilgrims in the town of Emmaüs, is our pick of the bunch. Divine presence is evoked by the (somewhat trite) means of a Caravaggio-esque chiaroscuro, while in the foreground lurks a barely visible Christ on his knees. The painting's achievement is to simultaneously represent Christ in his earthly and his celestial form – an early masterpiece from the Dutch genius.
1917 was a watershed year for Russia's Jewish community, of which Marc Chagall was a member. In November, Britain's Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour mooted the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine; days later, the Bolshevik Revolution promised to shake up Russia's social structure and abolish discrimination. This painting, which melds jerky modernist touches with traditional Jewish motifs, expresses the hope that these events inspired in Chagall. Here, the cemetery doesn't symbolise death so much as resurrection, as the Biblical quote inscribed on the gates attests: 'I'm going to open your graves, lift you out of those graves, and bring my people back into the land of Israel.' Yet the dream was short-lived: six years later, Chagall fled an increasingly totalitarian Soviet regime and exiled himself in France, where he spent most of the rest of his life.
Flora and fauna
Nearly a hundred metres of lilies, shadows and water stretch across the curved walls of the Orangerie. It’s not for nothing that ‘Les Nymphéas’ features on most tourist itineraries, sometimes overloading the Tuileries museum. 12 years of work and eight panels went into Monet’s masterpiece, whose dimensions, almost abstract beauty and impression of infinity never cease to fascinate. Here, Monet condenses a lifetime’s visual research in his career as an impressionist.
Drawing on his garden at Giverny over 30 years, the Orangerie paintings are his most successful depictions of his ponds, which he painted over 200 times. They represent the water at different times of the day, from dawn until dusk. If they’ve been hanging in the museum since 1927 (Monet gave them to the State the day after the armistice in 1918), we had to wait until the museum’s renovation in 2006 to see ‘Les Nympheas’ in the gorgeous environment that hosts them today.
Yves Klein was so into monochromatic colours, he even had his own brand of blue, the famous deep, electric ‘IKB’ (International Klein Blue’) whose chemical formula he registered at the l'Institut National de la Propriété Industrielle in 1960. From the 1950s his studio was filled with enormous monochrome canvases – monoblue, monochrome, monopink and monogold. Then, Klein remarked on the beauty of his painting implement– a sponge soaked in blue paint, infused with the pigment in the way that Klein wanted to world to drink in his IKB. He decided immediately to concentrate on a series of ‘sponge reliefs’ and ‘sponge sculptures’. With their curves, textures and folds, these works are quite organic, recalling vegetables, rock or coral. The most monumental of these sculptures is ‘L’Arbre’ at the Centre Pompidou, one of the last works that Klein finished before his death from a heart condition at the age of 34.
A plain oval surface with six slits around a central axis, this Gabonese mask is perhaps the ultimate illustration of the Kwele tribe’s simple, harmonious aesthetic. Its chief fascination lies in the myriad images that it suggests: where some distinguish the face of an elephant (a recurrent motif in Kwele masks), others see a tree leaf, or even a female sexual organ in its various stages of arousal. This ambiguity of design goes some way to explaining the mask’s enduring popularity with French collectors, each reading a new significance into its patterns before passing it on.
When the director of the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature saw Jan Fabre's remarkable work on the ceiling of the Palais Royal in Brussels, he was inspired to commission the painter to do a similar job on one of the rooms in his museum. Fabre was entrusted with the small gallery dedicated to Diana, and came up with a highly original interpretation of the goddess's mythology. Abnormally large owls – symbols of night, harbingers of death – reach out to velvet walls with their thick feathering, their unnervingly human eyes tracking the unsuspecting visitors who come here to admire the Rubens and Brueghel (both, like Fabre, from Antwerp) canvases that adorn opposite walls. Worth a visit to the museum in itself.
Long considered the most remarkable Chinese vase on display in Europe, 'La Tigresse' is a marvellous bronze testament to the technological prowess of a civilisation 30 centuries ago. The vessel is elaborately wrought into the form of a female tiger clutching a homunculus, though exactly what she's doing to him is unclear – his expression suggests calm rather than fear. To interpret the beast as the man's protector would certainly be consistent with Chinese legends that tell of a baby taken under the wing of a maternal tigress, as well as apocryphal histories in which clan ancestries are identified with animals. The mystery is part of this artefact's appeal.
Risk-taking and subverting the norm
Even the title is a provocation: without Genesis or Big Bang, the origin of the world is uncompromisingly presented as the female sex. If female nudity is hardly new in art history, from prehistoric fertility goddesses onwards, Courbet’s approach was the first time it was shown so direct and realistically, far from the idealisation of Ingres or the concealing hand of Manet’s ‘Olympia’ – which itself created a scandal three years earlier. Courbet first sold ‘L’Origine du Monde’ to Turkish diplomat Khalil-Bey along with another erotic piece – it was later acquired by a Hungarian collector before finishing up hidden behind another canvas by André Masson in psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s apartment.
On display at the Orsay since 1995, ‘L’Origine du Monde’ continues to trouble its viewers today – you only have to look at the faces of people who pass it in the museum.
Duchamp probably never imagined that we would still be talking about his superficially infantile visual jokes more than a century after their creation. Provocation, pre-punk gesture or an ironic bone thrown to the critics, plenty of ink has flowed on the subject of this urinal, for better or worse indelibly inscribed in the annals of art history as the death knell for a certain idea of modernity. Through his ‘ready-made’ pieces, Duchamp acquired a tranquil state of indifference vis-à-vis artistic opinion, and remains one of the coolest French artists of the last century – in a way, he gave it its Mona Lisa.
It might look like something out of a high-class Marais sex shop, but this bronze creation is a princess, not a dildo. Naturally, not everyone agrees – Brancusi’s sculpture was excluded from the Salon d’Antin in 1916 and the Salon des Indépendants in 1920 (before a petition had it reinstated). Created at the height of the Dadaist movement, ‘Princesse X’ enjoys the play of ambiguity with its fantastical treatment of the female body, where bust and face also evoke androgyny and the male sex. Left to the state in 1957, Brancusi’s shiny abstract toy questions vanity, eroticism and femininity.
In 1816 the Méduse, a French frigate engaged in colonising Senegal, ran aground on a sandbank. 150 men had to construct a raft to try and make it back to dry land – thirteen nightmarish days followed, hunger and thirst driving them to cannibalism. Only ten survived.
Géricault worked on the subject for three years, trying to bring together art and life. He interviewed the survivors, created a model of the scene and studied corpses in his studio, before presenting the huge 5x7 metre canvas at the 1819 Salon, where its darkness fascinated and scandalised the audience. Today, 'Le Radeau de la Méduse' is seen as one of the masterpieces of 19th century painting, its pyramid composition and strong contrasts making it famous as an incarnation of romanticism. A metaphor for human solitude or hope, it can also be seen as a critique of slavery.
In April 1874, the art critic Louis Leroy wrote an article deriding 'Impression Soleil Levant', Monet's apparently innocuous painting of the harbour of Le Havre. Leroy criticised the painting's crudeness, referring to the underwhelming 'impression' it left on him. Monet and his contemporaries enthusiastically adopted the word as a sort of mission statement, and so impressionism was born. This seminal painting already contains many of the movement's defining features: indistinct landscape, pronounced brushstrokes, blurred colours. This was all too much for Leroy, but it enthralled others; today, it's rightly regarded as a groundbreaking work of art.
Presented at the Salon des Refusés in 1863, ‘Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe’ provoked a scandal, as much for its subject as for its execution. With this pastoral scene, Manet cocked a snook at the predominant tastes of his era (characterised by a pretentious eroticism) and managed to shock with one of the most common images in painting: a female nude. Because this one was placed between two men in contemporary costume, there was no possibility of allegorical or mythological interpretation, and the direct gaze of the woman left no doubt that this was a painting about sex – even the upturned basket of fruits suggested that cherries weren’t the only things nibbled on during this picnic.
Too experimental for the academic institutions that had commissioned it, Rodin’s monument to Balzac was one the sculptor’s proudest achievements. And with good reason: over the course of six years, Rodin laboured to capture the howling torment running through Balzac’s oeuvre, creating an expressionist masterpiece that totally dispenses with the clichés of writerly portraits – pens, paper, ink and the like. The sculpture’s notoriety was boosted by Edward Steichen’s photoshoot, staged on a moonlit night in 1908. A century later, the sculpture now has various replicas holding court in the gardens of the Musée Rodin, on the Boulevard Raspail and in New York’s MoMA.
The geometric décor with its heightened perspective and troubling shadows, the incomplete figures with their wooden bodies and pale faces make up an elusive world of strong lines but obscure meaning. A master of the ‘incongurous’, extolled by the surrealists shortly afterwards, by 1910 Giorgio De Chirico (1888-1978) was already putting together most of his tableaux through dreams and intuition. And so it is with ‘Il Ritornante’ (‘The Phantom’), recently acquired by the Centre Pompidou, which brings together multiple motifs linked to fantasy, the past and the unconscious – a piece whose surrealist accents are ahead of its time.
Design and architecture
In 1925, André Groult hit upon a seductive idea: to design a lady's chamber in the image of a woman. Amid pink and grey hues and rounded lines stood this remarkable chest of drawers, creamy-brown in colour, sensuously curvaceous, and so anthropomorphic that it wouldn't look out of place in a Disney film. Intended as storage for sewing materials, the cabinet transcends its functional purpose to become a work of art in its own right – at once a defiant tribute to traditional restoration furniture in an age when art nouveau was all the rage, and a teasing piece of wooden innuendo. As Groult himself said, 'I wanted to shape it to the point of indecency.'
In keeping with the exuberant exoskeleton of the nearby Centre Pompidou, Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely's 'Stravinsky Fountain' adds a touch of technicolour madness to the venerable Beaubourg neighbourhood. Like the music of the composer it honours, it's a bold work, dynamic and playful, referencing both the vivid colours and (courtesy of precisely timed jets of water) the rhythmic, almost mechanical quality of his most famous pieces. Blending sculpture, music, painting and urban planning, it's a multidisciplinary marvel that does justice to the broad ethos of the Pompidou.
'Sun, vegetation and space are the three raw materials of urbanism.' So declared Le Corbusier in his 1941 manifesto for modern urbanist architecture. Before long, his theories of harmonious living were being seized upon by city planners trying to navigate the post-war population boom; his utopian principles were most famously integrated into the Cité Radieuse (Radiant City) building, erected in Marseille between 1947-52. The self-described 'vertical village' brought together a gym, pool, primary school, auditorium, shopping centre and residential flats under one roof. The building still stands, but if the prospect of an architectural pilgrimage to the south of France doesn't entice you, go check out this replica of one of the flats at the Cité de l'Architecture.
When he moved to Auvers-sur-Oise in May 1980, Van Gogh had barely left the psychiatric hospital in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. It was the beginning of a very productive creative period – his last – resulting in around 70 canvases in two months before his death in July.
This agitated view of the church at Auvers already suggests the mood expressionism, of which Van Gogh was a precursor. The exaggerated forms, deep colours and thick paint give the composition a gothic aspect (in reality, the architecture is rather more subtle and rounded). The building looms over the perspective, flattening the composition, and the features of the sky and the ground accentuate the impression of convulsion. It's an anguished depiction of the church where Van Gogh would be buried, just a few weeks after completing this canvas.
In the mid-19th century, the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc hit on the bright idea of making life-sized plaster casts of some of the masterpieces of French architecture, and exhibiting them all together under a single roof. Of the resulting collection, a sort of Madame Tussauds for buildings, perhaps the most striking exhibit was the 10m-high model of the entrance to the Sainte-Marie-Madeleine Basilica in Vézelay (which still stands). It allows us fully to appreciate the Romanesque detail of the original: we see ordinary men mingle with apostles, while magical creatures point them toward unknown lands at the edges of the earth. Viollet-le-Duc considered the façade ‘one of the strangest, most remarkable works of the Middle Ages’; his reproduction is a suitably eccentric tribute.
As the Muslim crusaders approached the Iberian peninsula in the early 8th century, panicked Spaniards scurried to bury their treasure. So well did they conceal this collection of gold crowns, pearls and gems, it was only unearthed in 1859. The crowns weren’t destined for the heads of kings, but rather as offerings by the Visigoth nobility to the all-powerful churches of Toledo. They speak to the supreme craftsmanship of Spanish metalworkers in the 6th and 7th centuries, who benefited from the artistic exchange between Iberians and their Visigoth conquerors. Of the bounty, three crowns, a crucifix and six other artefacts are now exhibited in the Musée de Cluny.
Muses and idols
Who said size matters? Designed by Auguste Batholdi for the 1900 World Expo, this diminutive sibling of the Statue of Liberty (16 times smaller than its big sister) ended up in the Senate gardens, where it held court for over a century before returning to Paris in 2012. The statue's image has adorned seemingly every surface in popular culture – film posters, chewing gum packets, ten-dollar bills – and so it's with a sense of homecoming that it finally takes its place in the pantheon of museum exhibits, among the Rodin sculptures that populate the entrance hall of the Musée d'Orsay. Only here, wrenched from its context of American patriotism, can we appreciate the statue on its own aesthetic terms; even at 7ft, it remains a towering monument to modern neo-classicism.
This curious one-armed figurine was produced in a 10th-century Mali under threat of Islamic domination. The native population, of animist faith and great artistic sophistication, sought refuge in the Dogon plains, which is where this artefact was discovered. If the combination of beard and low-hanging breasts confuses you, bear in mind that the sculptor was resorting to androgynous depiction as a means to illustrate the reciprocal dependence of man and woman, as per much art of the region. The theme is further developed in the two miniature characters standing at its knees – presumably a reference to female fertility and childbirth as well. It's an astonishingly detailed work of art, fortunately preserved by the dry climate of the cave in which it was found.
Rodin’s famous ‘thinker’ is a bit like the Superman of sculpture – a fine mind in an athlete’s body, who gives the impression of carrying the weight of the world’s cares on his shapely shoulders. He was created as part of a monument celebrating Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’, and was originally called ‘The Poet’, a representation of Dante contemplating his works in front of the gates of hell, and wasn’t exhibited alone until 1888. Adored by the public, the sculpture became one of Rodin’s iconic works, assuming an aura of anonymity and allegory and becoming a sort of metaphor for existential questioning.
With its triangular nose, polished marble and simplified geometric forms, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was a piece by Brancusi. But despite its sheen and its stylised traits, this apparently modern statue was created in ancient Greece, between 2700 and 2300 BC. Originally, this head topped the body of 1.5m high statue of a woman and was decorated with touches of paint at eyes and lips. Today, only the ears and nose indicate the face shape – an extraordinarily well preserved and highly convincing image from ancient civilisation on the island of Keros.
Viardot was one of the most renowned singers of her day, admired by Chopin and Liszt and loved by George Sand. This austere portrait by Ary Scheffer (1795-1858) captures something of her ‘irresistible ugliness’, as her friend Saint-Saëns put it. Scheffer himself was won over – he later remarked that although she was ‘terribly unattractive, if I saw her again I would fall madly in love with her’. In her heyday, Viardot reigned supreme over the Pigalle nightlife, though she is largely forgotten today; a century after her death, her portrait beguiles visitors to the Musée de la Vie Romantique, around the corner from her old haunts.
Nadar, Le Gray, Atget and Stieglitz are just some of the giants of photography whose works make up the Orsay collection, an extraordinary treasure trove of some 46,000 pieces. To make the photographs available to the public while limiting the exposure of the images to the light, the museum replaces the photos on display every three months, creating a whole new exhibition four times a year – a sepia world revolving around a theme picked from photographic production from the 1800s until the 1920s.
Too fragile for permanent public display, the Musée Carnavalet’s magnificent collection of 19th-century photographs is one of the city’s great unseen artistic treasures. Among the many beautiful sepia photos of a Paris we found this, Charles Nègre’s portrait of three chimney sweeps walking along the Quai Bourbon. While snapping commoners was already an established trend in his day, Nègre innovated by capturing his subjects in motion – or at least in apparent motion, for exposure lengths would have required the three to hold their pose. Staged as it was, the photo, made famous after appearing in the journal ‘La Lumière’, nevertheless launched a new fad for spontaneously capturing ‘instants in time’.
‘Ghost’ is the Centre Pompidou’s bold presentation of Kader Attia’s vast army of kneeling figures, all of which are fashioned from sheets of tinfoil. You first see them from behind, light and shadow interplaying on their shiny surfaces to give shape to their prostrate postures. You’re then guided to the other side of the gallery, from where (spoiler alert) you first notice, with a slight jolt, that these ‘people’ have no faces, no bodies. What from behind appeared to be a congregation kneeling in prayer is actually just a mass of lifeless shells. The illusion is a striking visual coup, a landmark moment in the Franco-Algerian artist’s work. The exhibition runs until March 2014.
Once he inherited his father’s industrial fortune, Gustave Caillebotte could finally devote himself to painting. He also became the patron of his friends Degas and Renoir, and financed impressionist exhibitions – so much so that at the time, he was known better as a collector than as an artist. It wasn’t until the 1970s that his pieces were finally taken at their real value – and in first place, these ‘Raboteurs de Parquet’ (‘The Floor Planers’).
By choosing to paint an emancipated woman drinking and smoking alone on a café terrace, monocle fixed to her eye, Otto Dix addressed the new inter-war society in the heart of Berlin, where he spent two years from 1925-1927. Dix portrays these intellectuals in the same way as he portrayed the violence of the 1914-18 war: neither hiding nor exaggerating reality, but sketching ambiguous, charasmatically ugly figures. His compositions are always interrupted by details that disturb their harmony: here, the fallen stocking clashes with the apparent assurance of the journalist, just as her dress is at odds with the art deco furniture that surrounds her. With her greyish skin, spider-like fingers, bony body and masculine allure, Harden’s portrait is one that best summarises the New Objectivity of Weimar Germany.
The ancient world
Against a background of luxury and abandon, Cleopatra shows scant concern for her escalating catering bills by picking up a pearl and preparing to dissolve it in a glass of vinegar – the ultimate elixir. The Egyptian queen is here to impress Mark Antony – in Tiepolo’s scene, she’s unlikely to fail. Of course, Tiepolo (1696-1770) was also keen to dazzle his patron, the king of Poland, and in this painting he pulled out all the stops, with imposing baroque décor and minutely detailed costumes. But this was only the prototype for a much larger tableau, which the awed king dutifully commissioned. Though more modest in scale, this version is the freer and more spirited of the two, and a remarkable work in itself.
The identity of the crouching scribe is a mystery – though since its discovery in 1850, it has been one of the most popular works at the Louvre. At a guess, he was a lowly administrator, destined to count landowners’ sheep in his native Ancient Egypt, or to scratch out poems on demand. Although, the complex and refined treatment of the subject suggests he might have been attached to the Egyptian elite – perhaps even a son of the Pharaoh in a studious aspect, with a papyrus in one hand and a writing implement in the other – most likely a reed, though today it has disappeared.
With its bright colours and detailed realism (the artist even took the trouble to outline the nipples using two wooden pegs, and to model a bulge under the loincloth), this remarkably well-preserved limestone sculpture remains one of the most extraordinary artistic remains from Ancient Egypt.
Upon its completion in 1910, this monumental representation of the sixth labour of Hercules appalled one half of the public and fascinated the other. Its sheer scale was a factor, but it was the striking modernism of the statue, with its distorted anatomy and idealised lines, that really bowled people over. 26 years after his arrival in Paris, Antoine Bourdelle had announced his emancipation from the lyrical style purveyed by his master Rodin. 'Héraklès' sealed his fame and set him on a career path that saw him become a teacher and mentor to the first generation of the 20th century: Giacometti, Brancusi, Maillol and their contemporaries. It remains his representative work, and a tipping point in the passage of sculpture from the 19th century into modernism.