When it comes to modern art in Paris, the Pompidou Centre and its iconic facade tend to get all of the attention. Most people don’t know that there is a whole other museum dedicated to the artistic movements of the 20th and 21st centuries. And they certainly don’t know that this museum has over 15,000 works in its permanent collections. Permanent collections that are free to visit, I might add. For this and many other reasons, the Museum of Modern Art (the MAM) should be on every art lover’s list of places to visit in Paris.
A Complex of Art
The Museum of Modern Art is actually part of a larger building called the Palais de Tokyo. This building was built in 1937 as part of the International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life. It was originally called the Palais des Musées d’Art Moderne, and it was dedicated to showcasing modern art. After the exposition, the building continued to be used as a cultural space, hosting various institutions and projects over the years.
The eastern wing of the Palais de Tokyo was later given to the City of Paris in 1961, and the Museum of Modern Art was formally established. The western wing continued to be known as the Palais de Tokyo, and today it operates as a contemporary art centre specializing in emerging artists. In 2013, the Museum of Modern Art became one of the 14 museums incorporated into the public entity known as the Paris Musées. This means that the eastern and western wings of this art complex now operate independently of each other. That being said, if you’re in the neighbourhood, they are both well worth a visit.
The Many Expositions of Museum of Modern Art
Like many museums in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art hosts an impressive rooster of temporary exhibitions throughout the year in addition to its permanent collections. In fact, there are often multiple exhibitions on at one time. But don’t be fooled into thinking that the MAM favours quantity over quality. I recently visited the museum to check out the three(!) exhibitions currently running, and they were all extraordinary in both scope and design.
The first exhibition I took in was a retrospective of French painter Eugène Leroy. I will admit that I was expecting a smaller showcase given that it was not located in the main exhibition space. Boy was I wrong. This exhibition spanned dozens of rooms and showcased hundreds of this artist’s works. They were all grouped according to theme instead of chronologically, giving the exposition a wonderfully comprehensive overview of Leroy’s oeuvre. It was amazing.
I then went downstairs and visited the Toyen exhibition. In contrast to Leroy, this exhibition was arranged chronologically, which was perfect for showcasing this artist. Toyen was famously disinclined to be pigeonholed into any one style over another, and therefore it was fascinating to see how her art evolved over the years. I then finished the day at the Anita Molinero exhibition, marvelling at the large scale sculptures on display. This exhibition marked the first retrospective of this artist by a Parisian institution, and it culminated with an intense 3D film in the basement of the museum. Leroy, Toyen, Molinero. It was a fantastic day of art.
So Much More to Discover
Once again I spent so much time in the temporary exhibitions, I didn’t have time to visit the permanent collections of this museum. Something I will be rectifying very soon, because the permanent collections are impressive all on their own. They include works from Picasso, Zadkine, Chagall, and Utrillo, among countless others. There is also the monumental mural in the Dufy room that quite literally took my breath away the first time I saw it.
If you want to get lost in a museum for a day, surrounded by incredible art, I highly recommend a trip to the Museum of Modern Art. I’ve already spent many an hour in this building and I’m nowhere close to experiencing all that it has to offer. As far as underrated museums in Paris goes, this one is at the top of my list.
Laura Moore is a professional storyteller who loves history and the many stories that make Paris one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Join one of her signature tours to learn the story of a city.