Paris is always a movable feast of museums, but this Christmas season it has really outdone itself—revving up as it is for the bicentennial of the French Revolution in 1989.
I recently spent several days there previewing the exhibitions for travelers who expect to wish each other Joyeux Noel in the City of Light over the holiday season. Here’s the pick of Paris, with Metro stop directions.
(He who rents a car to drive inside Paris when it has such excellent public transportation is a certified masochist. For 30 French francs you get a “carnet” of ten tickets good on any subway or bus within the city. That’s 50 cents a pop—a world-class travel bargain.)
To get into a properly snowy mood, start with “The Eskimo” at the Museum of Man (Metro: Iena / Line 9). Fifty years ago, a French anthropologist spent a winter in Eastern Greenland, and this exhibition celebrates his discoveries. It is full of tasty exotica such as the fact that “Eskimo” is an Algonquin word for someone who uses a strange language.
The “Eskimos” called themselves “Inuit,” which means “human being.” Ha. Ethnocentrism from the outside and the inside. The works of art which garnish the displays are exhilarating.
Incidentally, one of the best views in all Paris is from its restaurant, the Totem. You’ll see the Eiffel Tower like you’ve never seen it before.
In the same Palais de Chaillot, there is the Maritime Museum and an often-ignored cache of replicas of architecture and sculpture from all over France called the Museum of Monuments. I use the latter to plot my moves into the hinterland, getting advanced glimpses of the greatest art in medieval France. This show doesn’t change—but the Virgin of Autun cathedral is timeless, after all.
And there are no new shows in the Maritime Museum either, but if you don’t get a charge out of the long showboat Napoleon had made to strut his stuff in marine parades, then nothing nautical will turn you on.
My first time at the City of Science and Industry at the Parc Villette (Metro: Corentin Carious / 7) won’t be my last. An engrossing exhibit on wine and winemaking, complete with Saturday afternoon tastings, mixes science and friskiness in an intellectually intoxicating way.
There is even a video game in which you are given so much protective spray and must chase the bugs and such through the vines before time runs out. I was so bad at it that the enemies vine and wine won hands down.
It was also my first visit to the Jardin des Plantes, where the Museum of Natural History is located. I went to see the highly-touted show on bears. And it’s a honey.
It seems that the bears in the Pyranees are on the brink of distinction. And a voluntary group that wants to restore them is behind this absorbing tale of bears from the beginnings of time down to the teddy bear boom.
You’ll learn about bear-baiting and dancing bears, as well as the scientific study of the critters. And because it’s French, there’s bear art as well—mostly sculpture, but other genres as well. This is an ideal family viewing.
As is another show in another building with the puzzling title “Stone and Man.” Well, I declare. Those French museum types are clever. Human history from the stone’s perspective—everything from gravel to gems. You will be astonished how inventive human cultures have been in turning stones to their diverse uses.
For science-oriented types, there’s also a nearby show on growing crystals, as artful in its dazzle as it is instructive. I can see a family spending a whole day at this subway stop—especially since they have a zoo on the Seine side of the garden.
Every time I visit, I take one close look at one thing, have lunch (I’ve never felt so elegant flashing my Visa) and leave to come another day for another fix.
This time it was a fascinating exploration of how children in 19th-Century France were appealed to with visual arts, from learning how to draw to reading the new illustrated books and magazines. A great prehistory for our TV age, where (did you notice?) they’ve even got televisions in the subway.
And, of course, Gae Aulenti’s marvelous recycling of this stately train station as a museum is one of the wonders of the 1980s. Save some energy to ooh and aah at the museum itself. It’s a glory.
Now as you walk back toward the Pont Neuf, look sharp for the Ecole des Beaux Arts, where there is a splendid tribute to the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. Personally, I think the Finn was the most humanistic of the modern architectural pioneers.
See if you don’t agree when you read the texts on the humanness of wood as a material, the need to deal with psychological factors when you talk about functionalism, and his theory that small countries like his are ideal laboratories for architectural innovation.
And bless them, you can actually test the chairs as you gaze raptly at the Beaux Arts ceilings. I’m suspicious of any chair I can’t sit in. A posteriori reasoning applies.
My next destination for you is the Musee Des Arts Decoratifs on the Rue Rivoli—but there’s a major surprise on the way. I mean the new entrance to the Louvre, the pyramid of glass designed by I.M. Pei. I thought it was a dumb idea when I read about it, but they let me take a sneak preview, and it’s a splendor.
You won’t be able to use it as a portal to the most comprehensive museum in the world until February, but you can schmooze about in the Cour Napoleon, where I guarantee you will consider it one of the greatest sculptures you’ve every encountered.
Then take the Passage Richelieu (isn’t French history exciting?) to the Rue Rivoli and the Museum of Decorative Arts where 30 years of the work of the Union of Modern Artists is on display. There are mainly the architects who pioneered the modern styles, and their painter and sculptor friends.
If you want to understand how modern architecture has been as good and as bad as it has, this is a must. There’s even a swatch of posters by Cassandre—touting the liner Normandie and other neat choices from the period 1927-57. If you go to this museum direct, use the Palais Royal stop on Line 7.
There’s one small museum I always hit when I come to Paris—the Museum of Publicity on the Rue Paradis (Poissoniere / 7). This Christmas they are hanging UNICEF posters. But the building itself is a visual glory, a showroom for Art Nouveau tiles for building contractors that has been renovated into this cache of 30,000 posters. It has a fine shop as well if you’re looking for great historical posters and related visual materials.
Let me conclude with a suggestion that you get into a permanently Parisian mood by savoring the photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson—the highlight at the museum of photography at the Palais de Tokyo (Trocadero / 9). It’s next door to the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris, where there’s a Sigmar Polke retrospective.
If that neo-expressionist doesn’t appeal to you, stop long enough to see its regular collections. I always “discover” another 20th-Century artist I’d never heard of when I visit. And there’s Raoul Dufy’s 1937 paean to electricity, and Matisse’s dancers, and more. A great souvenir shop (totes, scarves, books, etc.) and a very good and inexpensive luncheon room.
There are other more specialized exhibitions—Symbolism at the Petit Palais, 17th-Century Italian paintings at the Grand Palais, and on and on! When you arrive at your train station, pick up the monthly guide to art exhibits (it’s free and handy—fits in your pocket) and inquire about the museum passes that give you terrific bargains for varied lengths of time.
They’ll also give you a map of the Metro. Sit down and have a café noir and croissant and plot your moves. Don’t get depressed when you’re about to leave Paris, not having seen all you wanted to. It’s inevitable.
And try to get a ten-franc piece (for a luggage cart) and a five-franc coin (for a locker to store your gear while you prowl Paris by Metro).
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large