THE BLOG
04/03/2014 10:38 am ET Updated Jun 03, 2014

Going to Paris? Here Are Three Exhibits You'll Want to See

Psst. Please, people. Art in Paris neither starts at the Mona Lisa nor ends in the Louvre.

We returned recently from a week there during which we visited three remarkable exhibits that will remain on display at least through the first week of June and, in the case of two, into July. All three are world class. You don't want to miss them. But be forewarned: Even in March, all three drew long lines of visitors. So arrive early.

Here is a bit about each:

1. Le Centre Pompidou, Place Georges-Pompidou. The work of Henri Cartier-Bresson

Throughout his career as a photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson experimented with different subjects and different forms. At one point, he juxtaposed stillness and motion, training his lens on stationary walls in anticipation of what would pass by. During another, he captured people with their eyes closed in a variety of contexts. Always, according to this lifetime retrospective of more than 500 of his photographs, "he did everything he could to fade into the distance -- never a close-up or with a flash."

Cartier-Bresson, who died in 2004 just short of his 96th birthday, was an artist with a camera. He also was a pioneer of photojournalism, a man, the retrospective notes, who "was well aware of what made a report rare, and valuable."

This exhibit, on display through June 9, follows Cartier-Bresson as he moved from painter to art photographer, captivated early on by surrealism. It then takes visitors through his decade in film and traces his evolution as chronicler of the world's great events, from Gandhi's funeral to post-Stalinist Russia.

Among other things, the exhibition shows his work from the Spanish Civil War; his portraits of artists and thinkers from Matisse to Sartre; his visit to Cuba in 1963, days after the missile crisis; and his last major project Viva la France, photographed after the turbulent protests of 1968.

If you like photography, even as an amateur, you will love this exhibit both for its breadth and depth.

It's open daily except Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. (the rest of the museum closes at 9). Tickets for adults cost $18 (13 euros). Children are free.

2. Musée Marmottan Monet, 2 Rue Louis Boilly, Impressionist Works from Private Collections, 100 Masterpieces

Even if you regularly seek out exhibits of the Impressionists, as my wife, Kathy, and I do, this collection will reveal works you've likely never seen by Renoir, Degas, Monet, Morisot, and more. If you can tune out the crowds, walking through it feels a bit like peeking into the parlor of some of the world's wealthiest private collectors.

The Marmottan, a private museum, curated the exhibit to celebrate its 80th anniversary and "to pay homage to collectors the world over who share its passion." The exhibit is scheduled to remain open through July 6. It spans a period from the emergence of Impressionism in the mid-1870s through the dissolution of the core group of Impressionists. It continues into the 1890s and beyond, opening "a window onto modern art."

That, anyway, is the official description. We loved the show for the richness of color on its canvases, the generous brushstrokes of paint and the intimate glimpses of life in late 19th century France that in some cases show scenes and perspectives quite different from our well-loved and well-known favorites in museums such as Paris' d'Orsay and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In all, the exhibit displays the paintings, drawings and sculpture of 15 artists.

Even without the special exhibit, the Marmottan is a sweet museum, one a bit off the well-traveled path of Paris art regularly visited by international tourists. After seeing the special exhibit, be sure to linger awhile. Downstairs you'll find the standing collection of some 60 of Monet's works and a timeline of the painter's life and career. Start with the special exhibit because it draws the crowds. But when you come downstairs, try to find space to step back 20 or 30 paces from Monet's paintings. We have found that his work takes on new shape and form at greater distances than most people view it. In several cases here, paintings of the bridge at his beloved Giverny aren't even apparent until the visitor steps back.

The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and on Thursday evenings until 8 p.m. Entrance is $14 (10 euros) for adults and half that for students under 25 and anyone under 18. Children under 7 and the disabled are free. Audio guides cost $4. Blocks from Paris' sprawling park, Le Bois du Bologne, the museum is near La Muette stop on Line 9 of Paris' Metro. We took the subway there and walked back, past the Eiffel Tower.

3. Musée d'Orsay at 1 Rue de la Légion d'Honneur, Van Gogh/Artaud. The Man 'Suicided' by Society

True confessions. The d'Orsay, and not the Louvre, is our favorite museum in Paris. We always come here first, to stand before the museum's sprawling exhibit of Impressionism on the top floor, enjoy its grand architecture, and take in its sculpture hall on the main floor. Even without a special exhibit, one can get lost here and spend a full day.

But there is a special exhibit now that draws together work by perhaps the most distinctive and alienated painter of the Impressionist era, Vincent van Gogh. The exhibit is officially titled in English, 'The Man Suicided by Society' -- though that English translation is certainly not mine. The exhibit's theme builds off the premise of the writer and painter Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) that society in essence killed van Gogh.

Here is the official description from the museum website: "Artaud was determined to show how van Gogh's exceptional lucidity made lesser minds uncomfortable. Wishing to prevent him from uttering certain 'intolerable truths,' those who were disturbed by his painting drove him to suicide."

To me, the premise of the exhibit and some of Artaud's accompanying exceprts seem tortuous and pretentious. This was particularly true, perhaps, because we came here after our slow lane adventure in St. Remy, where we first visited the sanitarium in which van Gogh lived most of his last year of life. But the d'Orsay exhibit's art -- there are some 40 paintings -- is sublime, drawing on van Gogh's work not only at the d'Orsay but from museums in Essen, Otterlo, Amsterdam, Los Angeles, Dallas, New York, Berlin and elsewhere.

In arguing that the painter's madness was really genius, Artaud wrote "for van Gogh was one of those natures whose superior lucidity enables them, in all circumstances, to see farther, infinitely and dangerously ... farther than the immediate and apparent reality of facts."

While there's no disputing that van Gogh suffered from not having his art recognized during his lifetime, we found it hard to understand Artaud's dismissal of others in his time, who included, for example, Renoir, Monet and Degas.

But this much-abbreviated lineup of his contemporaries did not dissuade Arnaud from writing: "Van Gogh's paintings will prove to have belonged to a time when there was no soul, no mind, no consciousness, no thought, only raw elements alternately chained and unchained."

Oh, please. Enjoy the art and take the exhibit's premise with a grain of salt.

Vincent van Gogh took his life in 1890. He was 37.

The museum is open from 9:30 to 6 p.m. daily except Monday and on Thursday evenings. Adult admission is $15.50 (11 euros). Children under 18 are free.

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