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Paris, Europe’s Former Art Capital, Is Back On Top

Largely thanks to a wave of new galleries with internationally minded programs, the city has recaptured some of the energy and excitement of a bygone era.

Credit…© Laurent Pernot, courtesy of the artist via Laurent Pernot and Galerie Marguo

IT’S HARD TO pinpoint exactly why so much influential creative work came out of Paris in the 1920s, but what is certain is that its originators — or at least the white and usually male ones among them — felt free. For a while, it seemed enough, as Ernest Hemingway writes in “A Moveable Feast” (1964), “just to be back in our part of Paris and away from the track and to bet on our own life and work, and on the painters that you knew.” That he mentions his painter friends reflects the artistic era’s ample cross-pollination among disciplines and alludes to its frenetic socializing — at those famous libation-fueled Saturday salons of Gertrude Stein’s, for one, where Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse would mingle with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and Edith Sitwell. When the sun came up the next day, some would seek solitude, but others would head to a favorite cafe to discuss their lives and their work and what one had or didn’t have to do with the other.

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Credit…Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

On the visual art side of things, the general sense of freedom was also informed by a move toward practitioners pursuing their own ideas in lieu of taking commissions from patrons, one driven by a new group of dealers looking to invest in young talent. Léonce Rosenberg helped grow the careers of Fernand Léger and Georges Braque, and Paul Guillaume represented Chaïm Soutine and Amedeo Modigliani, just as Paul Durand-Ruel, who, starting in the early 1870s, supported Impressionist artists including Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro, had played a crucial role in the decentralization of France’s art market, which before the mid-19th century had been largely controlled by the annual exhibitions hosted by the Académie des Beaux-Arts.

While these artists’ particular brand of bohemianism is well-trod and no doubt heavily romanticized territory, it still holds power, perhaps especially because it didn’t last: When World War II broke out in 1939, many of the city’s artists and gallerists dispersed, with the lucky ones landing in New York. In 1964, when Robert Rauschenberg won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale, it was taken as proof that the American art world’s victory over France’s was complete. Paris’s light, it seemed, had gone out.

The impression of Paris as a place with excellent museums but sleepy galleries run by conservative, change-averse dealers, has persisted for decades. Over the last three or four years, however, the city’s art scene has made a surprising comeback, largely thanks to a new wave of international galleries operated by young dealers, as well as newly energized art fairs like FIAC (which has yet to issue an official statement but seems likely to be replaced later this year by Paris+, a fair organized by Art Basel), an expanding Paris-based auction market and the openings of contemporary exhibition spaces such as the Pinault Collection’s Bourse de Commerce. Some have even gone so far as to christen the city the new (old) art capital of Europe. Surely it has pulled focus from London, which has seen a decrease in activity since Brexit, and Berlin, which is no longer the affordable, appealingly gritty haven it was for young artists in the 1990s and 2000s. And once a few key players choose a place, of course, it’s where everyone wants to be. Still, some gallerists who have been in Paris all along, or at least for a while, scoff at the supposed shift, as if to say, “You didn’t already know?”

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Credit…Courtesy of the artists and Galerie Marguo. Photo: Mike Derez

IN CHINESE, THE word for crisis — weiji — contains two characters: wei, which means “danger,” and ji, which means “opportunity.” This conflation is what propelled the art dealers Vanessa Guo and Jean-Mathieu Martini to open Galerie Marguo in the fall of 2020. Guo, the former director of Hauser & Wirth Asia, was visiting Martini in Paris, where he was an independent dealer of photography and art books, when the pandemic struck. As was true for so many around the world, the ensuing pause ignited a kind of reckoning of purpose in them. In a few months’ time, Guo decided to leave her job, stay on in Paris and make her romantic partnership a business one, too. “I used to organize big exhibitions for names like Mark Bradford and Louise Bourgeois, but I realized there’s only so much you can do for established artists,” she says. So while Galerie Marguo is set in a 1,200-square-foot former military complex in the heart of the Marais, among established galleries such as Thaddaeus Ropac and Perrotin, in addition to the Picasso Museum and the Centre Pompidou, it focuses on work by lesser-known international artists — many of them in their 30s and 40s and of Asian descent — whose work the pair feel passionate enough about to collect themselves.

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Credit…© Dianna Settles, courtesy of the artist and Galerie Marguo

“The Hearing Trumpet,” a recent group show of theirs inspired by the hopeful and radical world building in the artist and writer Leonora Carrington’s 1974 surrealist novel of the same name, brought together work by Asian artists living in cities across the Americas and Europe and exploring questions of identity and identification. Guo describes it as a statement show. “We’re seeing a lot of group exhibitions for Black artists here now, which is so great, but nothing like this for Asian diaspora artists, whose stories can also be uniquely told and united under a common context,” she says. “I think it had a really good impact.” So much so that a second installment of “The Hearing Trumpet,” with work by the video artist Astria Suparak, the ceramist Heidi Lau and others, will open May 7.

Guo also attributes the success of the show to a larger shift — away from stuffiness and localism and toward dealers and viewers who are curious about contemporary makers from other parts of the world — that has been partly driven by social media. At the height of the pandemic, when collectors couldn’t visit their favorite galleries in person, they turned to Instagram and became curious about what else was out there, which, according to the dealer, when restrictions were lifted, translated to increased foot traffic. “People have embraced us despite the fact that Paris has historically been pretty exclusionary to international dealers and artists.”

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Credit…Courtesy of Mariane Ibrahim

Kamel Mennour, the Algerian-born French dealer who started out selling minor works door-to-door in order to pay his university fees at the Sorbonne and opened his namesake gallery, which represents such celebrated talents as the British Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor, the Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone and the Polish German artist Alicja Kwade, in 1999, has always pushed against that sort of thinking. He also believes Paris to be a true and worthy locus of contemporary art, and has chosen to open four spaces there in part to help expand the city’s gallery scene, which he’s long talked up at art fairs abroad, encouraging collectors to come to him. He feels the capital has finally reclaimed the sort of dynamism it once had. “It’s an amazing moment for Paris because of all the new foundations, museums and galleries that have opened and the collectors overseas who are stopping here regularly now,” Mennour says. “All of that has reinstated the lumière of the city. It was unimaginable a few years ago, even to me, that it would grow to be what it is today. But Paris is moving, it’s booming, it’s the place to be. Even the artists are coming back because they want to be around this energy.”

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Credit…© Clotilde Jimenez, courtesy of Mariane Ibrahim

More evidence of the boom: In the last few years, the Chicago-based French Somali dealer Mariane Ibrahim, who shows artists including Amoako Boafo, Ayana V. Jackson and Clotilde Jiménez, as well as the Italian galleries Massimo De Carlo and Galleria Continua, have joined Mennour on the Avenue Matignon, which has become a new art hub in the city. Larry Gagosian opened a space just off the street in 2010, and while he may have a shop (or three or six), including a new Paris outpost near Place Vendôme, it’s worth noting that this is only Ibrahim’s second location.

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Credit…Romain Darnaud, courtesy of the artist and Fitzpatrick Gallery, Paris

In 2013, Robbie Fitzpatrick and Alex Freedman founded the erstwhile Freedman Fitzpatrick gallery in Los Angeles with the aim of introducing European artists to the U.S. market. Five years later, they opened a second location in Paris to do the reverse. It closed just before the pandemic but, during lockdown, Fitzpatrick realized he wasn’t finished with art or with Paris. And so in October 2021, he relaunched the pair’s former space on the Rue de Turenne in the Marais as Fitzpatrick Gallery with a show featuring the work of artists from all over the world, including Chino Amobi, Alvaro Urbano, Min Yoon, Hamishi Farah and Raúl de Nieves. “I don’t consider myself to be a French gallery per se, showing artists who are engaged strictly in local conversations,” Fitzpatrick says. “I’m an international gallery, and I happen to be here in Paris.” It’s fitting, then, that his outfit’s logo seems to riff on that of the United Nations.

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Credit…Courtesy of the artist and Camille Blatrix and Balice Hertling, Paris

“The city has indeed become a much more international place,” says Alexander Hertling of Balice Hertling, which, as of this weekend, will have two spaces in the Marais (the new and second one will replace the gallery’s Belleville space) and is known for its women-focused program — this month, it will mount a solo exhibition of work by the French artist Camille Blatrix; a debut solo show by the New York-based Argentine painter Mercedes Llanos will follow in the fall. “It’s also become more of an option for people who don’t speak French. I’m not going to say everything is perfect but, right now, at least, things feel sort of modern and welcoming, and people, especially younger people, feel close to that.”

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Credit…François Coquerel

ELSEWHERE IN THE CITY, smaller, more casual spaces seem to be popping up at record speed. One is Sainte Anne Gallery, run by Bianca Lee Vasquez and Masha Novoselova and located on the narrow, Japanese restaurant-lined Rue Sainte-Anne. The longtime friends, who moved to Paris at the same time roughly 15 years ago (Vasquez is Cuban American, and Novoselova was born in Russia), opened the space primarily to showcase work by their female artist pals. “We were thinking about how so few women are represented by galleries even though there are so many more women than men at art school,” says Vasquez. “What happens to the women between art schools and galleries?” She and Novoselova are especially interested in female artists working in media sometimes dismissed as mere craft — the German textile artist Joana Schneider, for instance, who makes tightly coiled fiber forms that respond to the architecture of Japanese gardens. The pair also seeks to be as sustainable as possible. Though several of their artists come from international backgrounds — “We try to show as many perspectives as possible,” says Novoselova — they don’t buy work from overseas and travel to studio visits outside of the city by train, rather than plane, to lessen their carbon footprint. This month, they’re showing “Off Water II,” with work by 12 female artists, most of whom live in or around Paris, including Mirsini Artakianou, Ranti Bam, Ghislaine Portalis and Vasquez herself.

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Credit…Claire Israël, courtesy of We Do Not Work Alone

Across town, on the Rue du Vertbois, lies We Do Not Work Alone, an exhibition space whose name speaks to the desire of its founders — Louise Grislain, Anna Klossowski and Charlotte Morel, who met as students at the Sorbonne — to foster a spirit of close collaboration between artist and dealer, and whose trajectory shines a light on how Paris can allow for a nimble grass-roots approach. The venture started as a way for the women to curate shows for their artist friends in studios and other nontraditional venues, but they became more interested in the functional objects so many of their friends were making for their homes and studios. So the trio started focusing more on these design-leaning works, whether a cloisonné lamp base mimicking the female form by the feminist psychedelic artist Dorothy lannone or an aluminum pencil sharpener sculpted to resemble René Magritte’s iconic smoking pipe by François Curlet. “There’s an intimacy to these pieces that links to the lives of people like Alexander Calder, who made his own knives, his own ashtrays and even his own toilet paper holders,” says Grislain. She, Klossowski and Morel opened their first permanent space, on the Rue du Vertbois, in June of 2020 and are currently showing ceramic vases and plates by Matthieu Cossé, known for his collaborations with Hermès and the French decorator Pierre Yovanovitch. This summer, they’ll help to produce a presentation of hand-poured candles by the France-based Korean artist Seulgi Lee in partnership with the Villa Noailles in Hyères, and in the fall will show a series of metal and ceramic side tables that they conceived with the Paris-based American artist Matthew Lutz-Kinoy.

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Credit…Claire Israël, courtesy of We Do Not Work Alone

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Credit…Claire Israël, courtesy of We Do Not Work Alone

And, as Mennour says, just as Paris is once again popular with gallerists, so, too, is it with artists. It’s still a relatively expensive city, but studio space is at least becoming more readily available. Poush by Manifesto, originally established as a nine-story artist incubator co-founded by the former publisher Hervé Digne and the curator Laure Confavreux-Colliex in the suburb of Clichy, offers affordable studio and exhibition space as well as art classes and opportunities to connect with museum and gallery directors. “All the young artists went there after lockdown,” says Melanie Scarciglia, a co-founder of the Paris-based independent book publisher Three Star Books. Over 1,000 people went to Poush’s inaugural exhibition, a group show featuring the work of 18 artists, including sculptures by Guillaume Bouisset and installations by Bianca Bondi. That year, the institution’s roster grew to 220, with 30 different nationalities represented and an average age of 33. This June, Poush will move into a former perfumery in Aubervilliers, another neighborhood northeast of Paris, in order to reconfigure its program and expand its offerings for still other kinds of creatives, including performance artists, dancers and musicians. The success of the venture, Digne says, has only been possible because young artists from across Europe and around the world are returning to the city in droves. “We have tremendous hope for the future when seeing what Paris is now, and what it is becoming,” he adds.

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Credit…Courtesy of Axel Dahl

THE TREND ISN’T limited to the French capital, either. Last summer, in response to an urge to return to Europe after feeling overwhelmed by both the Trump presidency and Brexit, Lucy Chadwick, the British-born former senior director of Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in New York, decided, with a few days’ notice, to move her family not to Paris but to Biarritz, on the country’s southwest corner, and open Champ Lacombe, the Basque town’s first contemporary art gallery. Its inaugural exhibition last summer showcased works by Anne Collier, Arthur Jafa, Adrian Piper, Martine Syms, Josiane M. H. Pozi and Mark Leckey. The city was already something of a home away from home for Chadwick, as she’d visited with friends and family every year for three decades. Still, “to open a new company is a challenge, but to do it during a pandemic in a different country, using a second language, has been riddled with unforeseen hurdles and roadblocks,” she says. “It’s really only by virtue of having a community of friends that it has even been possible.” Luckily, that community is only growing, on account of an influx of American visitors and collectors from Spain, London and, of course, Paris. (Locals have also become familiar with the gallery, as Chadwick has organized several community-focused events in the hope of making it as open and accessible as possible.) She goes to Paris often, too, to wander museums and galleries and see what’s new. “I try to pack my visits with shows and meetings, and then return to Basque Country to breathe,” she says.

For her part, Ibrahim sees her move to France, a dream realized after many years, as a kind of homecoming. She opened her space with “J’ai Deux Amours,” a group show featuring the work of her entire roster of artists that was a tribute to the performer Josephine Baker, who, like Ibrahim, navigated having ties to both France and America, and demanded space for complex cultural stories, with all their tangled specificities, to be told. “Paris was the city for Black intellectuals and creatives when America wouldn’t give them a platform,” Ibrahim says. “One day I was in the car thinking about this and had a flash of lightning. I played ‘J’ai Deux Amours’ for my husband and said, ‘This is the title for my first Paris show. I need optimism and positive energy and love. So I’m taking Josephine with me.’ ”

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