METZ, France — Until recently, Metz, in France’s northeastern Lorraine region, was known mostly for slowing traffic on the autoroute that leads from Brussels to points south. But Metz’ stunning new museum of modern art is likely to change that — much the way that Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim museum put Spain’s Bilbao on the map.
The newly opened Centre Pompidou-Metz is a satellite of Paris’ Centre Pompidou, the official home of France’s national collection of 20th-century art. The museum in Metz, which opened with an exhibition entitled “Chefs d’Oeuvres?” ("Masterpieces?"), will have access to the more than 59,000 works of France’s entire national collection.
At least 800 pieces — including some of the finest works by Picasso, Magritte, Dali, Matisse, Delaunay, Pollock, Giacometti and almost any other name you can think of in 20th-century art — are currently on display. The show, which runs through October, is the most impressive collection of 20th-century art in one place at this time in Europe, and probably the world. One critic noted that it looked as though France had taken everything it had and put it into one museum.
As impressive as the art is, the museum that houses it is nothing short of breath-taking. A concrete and steel structure supports two superimposed rectangular galleries at oblique angles to each other. A white roof that one observer described as resembling a giant manta ray in flight hovers over a lattice of laminated wood. The rectangular upper gallery extends through the roof at either end. The latticework required about 11 miles of wood imported from Germany and weighs 650 tons. The original intention was to capture the flow and natural weave found in the conical hats that rice farmers wear in Asia.
(At the opening of the new Centre Pompidou Metz in May 2010, thousands of people lined up for three hours or more in bone-chilling cold to see inside the new 20th-century art museum in Metz, France. William Dowell/GlobalPost)
A major problem with Paris’ Centre Pompidou, which was designed by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano in the late 1970s, is that because much of the building's heating and ventilation ducts along with its escalators are on the outside of the building, cleaning the exterior has always been a major problem. The roof of the Centre Pompidou-Metz is designed to clean itself, and various facades of the building can be moved to shade and cool the building naturally. The design, by Shigeru Ban and Jean de Castines, is not only strikingly beautiful — it is also a technological marvel.
Shigeru Ban, who was born in Tokyo in 1957, did his architectural studies at Cooper Union in New York and earned a reputation for imaginative use of paper and cardboard tubing in dazzlingly innovative structures. He advises the United Nations on emergency housing, and most recently designed temporary emergency shelters for earthquake victims in Haiti. After initially establishing a New York-based firm with a fellow Cooper Union graduate, Dean Malz, Shigeru Ban found a growing number of projects in Europe, which led to his collaboration with Jean de Castines, who had designed several wineries and worked on a number of tourist facilities in France. Along the way, De Castines had earned a reputation for his sensitivity to a historical context of the sites that he worked on. In 2003, the two architects won an international competition to build the museum.
The Centre Pompidou-Metz’s director and curator, Laurent Le Bon, made certain that Metz was included as a major partner in each step of the implementation of the museum’s design. Metz is the capital of France’s northeastern region of Lorraine, which was economically shattered by the collapse of France’s steel and textile industries in the late 1970s. Although Metz managed to diversify and expand despite the region’s problems, there was a natural suspicion about how much of a commitment Paris would really make.
Le Bon, who teaches at the Ecole du Louvre in Paris and also has a class on cultural management at Paris’ prestigious Institut d’Etudes Politiques, is likely to emerge from his stewardship of the new museum with a vastly enhanced reputation as a major force in the art world. In an interview with the French magazine Dossier de l’Art he describes the effect of a window at the end of the museum’s upper gallery, which faces ancient St. Etienne Cathedral. When you stand at mid-point in the gallery, the medieval cathedral fills the window, resembling one of the canvases on the wall.
But as you come closer to the window, the surrounding countryside begins to fill the picture and the medieval structure of the cathedral becomes less prominent. It is an allegory, Le Bon explains, for the progress of the art in the exhibition.
Le Bon decided on the current show when he realized that people in Metz were afraid that the museums in Paris would try to foist off unimportant secondary works on the provincial museum. Rejecting that approach, Le Bon called museum directors in France and asked them to submit one of their masterpieces. Among the 800 works at Metz, it is hard to find one that does not constitute a masterpiece.
(Jackson Pollock Number 26 A, Black and White, 1948. Collection Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris
Dation, 1984 © Adagp, Paris, 2010 / Centre Pompidou, Mnam-Cci, Paris / Adam Rzepka / Dist. RMN)
However, Le Bon put a question mark at the end of the exhibition’s title to effectively ask what it is that makes a masterpiece. Is the concept still relevant in this day and age? At the museum’s opening, thousands of people from Metz lined up for three hours or more in bone-chilling cold to see what Le Bon was talking about. While many had never seen any of the works the atmosphere inside the museum was electric. A man stood marveling at a large canvas by Jackson Pollock. “Who did that?” he asked in amazement. He clearly had no idea of who Jackson Pollock was, but he was carried away by what he saw. It was the most effective response that anyone could make to Laurent Le Bon’s question about the relevance today of a "masterpiece."
The decision to put the Centre Pompidou’s extension in Metz was undoubtedly supported by the Guggenheim’s success in Bilbao, but it is also part of a larger strategy that envisions globalizing culture within the European Union. Metz is intended to be one of the main poles of attraction in a new economic and cultural zone somewhat awkwardly labeled “SaarLorLux,” which incorporates the German Saar region, the nation of Luxembourg and France’s Lorraine. In the past, Metz served as a fortress to defend against invasion by the Germans. These days, the new Centre Pompidou-Metz is envisioned as a pole of attraction, to draw Germans and everyone else in. It is likely to succeed at doing just that. The museum and its current exhibition constitute, in fact, an experience that no one interested in 20th century art or architecture should miss.