October in Paris marks a shift in focus from fashion to art. This is when the city’s major institutions unveil their heavyweight exhibitions, while independent galleries often present their rising stars. Usually, October is also when dealers, collectors and adjacent art people arrive for Fiac, among the world’s leading contemporary art fairs, which has been replaced this year by Paris+ par Art Basel—a coup that, specifics aside, seems not unlike a shakeup of fashion designers and houses.
For all the fair-hopping, installations, and parties that will ensure the next few days are as over-scheduled as any fashion week, there are several new museum exhibitions exploring style, society, and visual culture. There’s a dynamic throwback to ’80s fashion, design, and graphic art at Musée des Arts Décoratifs. There’s escapism and luster at the Musée Yves Saint Laurent, which is presenting the designer’s obsession with gold. There’s timeless beauty mixed with existentialism at the Louvre, which has mounted a vast survey of the still life genre and how objects communicate. There are Alice Neel’s portraits of everyday people—and the social commentary they embody—at the Centre Pompidou. And at the Musée de l’Orangerie, there’s Mickalene Thomas’s scintillating impressions from Giverny that complement the juxtaposition of Claude Monet and Joan Mitchell over at the Fondation Louis Vuitton.
At least two of these shows were originally slated for 2020, but extended Covid closures and the uncertainty of re-openings complicated the coordinating of calendar slots and loans. Now, just as this season’s Paris Fashion Week felt like a true return to the energy of the Before Times, the scale of the exhibitions—and crowds attending them—is palpable.
“Paris is having such a great moment. It feels very refreshing to just be in the context of others through art again,” observed Thomas during a spontaneous chat in the street after I recognized her at the pharmacy and introduced myself. We spoke about her latest series (more below) and how there are endless things to take in this week.
In many ways, museum shows are the anti-art fair experience: they run for longer; nothing can be purchased; and when done well, they put forth a perspective that gives the works included greater depth. With this non-exhaustive selection, familiar ideas and themes emerge anew, either owing to greater distance and reflection, or because the evolution of how we live prompts a revised, more relevant reading. They are worthy detours from the art fair circuit—and for anyone else visiting Paris through the coming months.
“Mickalene Thomas With Monet”
Anyone who has visited Claude Monet’s Grandes Décorations, the monumental water lily paintings that curve along the museum’s walls as though anticipating virtual reality, knows there is an anteroom to buffer the bustle of visitors in the main space. This is where we find the first of five works from Mickalene Thomas, who spent 2011 in residence at Giverny. Here, she applies her signature flourish—photos and matte paper collaged into fragmented compositions embellished with paint and traced with Swarovski crystals—to interior scenes of his home, exterior scenes of his garden, and, most strikingly, a reimagining of Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe in which three Black women are dressed and gaze directly at the viewer (Thomas made a first version of this historic painting in 2010). Their beauty is luscious and cool, reclaimed from the male gaze yet no less seductive. On the lower level, is a large-format view of the house from the outside and a video installation where artificial flowers surround stacked screens that show Thomas as an Odalisque-type model set to an interview of Eartha Kitt with chirping birds recorded from the garden. Given our unplanned conversation, I asked her about the decision that these women would be clothed whereas she appears nude.
“One of the reasons I wanted to have them clothed in the Manet is because it is more about them occupying the space and not about them being nude. It’s also about them being very present. It’s very seldom that you see Black women in the context of relaxation or lounging. Where you see me as muse, in the nude in the form of an Odalisque, even this is equated to a form of leisure. To recline is to relax, to recline is to lounge, which is not necessarily associated to the Black body, since Black bodies are usually looked at through trauma, through abuse or discrimination. Me, I’m coming from a place of celebration and joy. So I wanted to bring that to the forefront. We, too, can occupy these [spaces] and emote these feelings.