A Self-Styled ‘Troublemaker’ Creates a Different
Contemporary art owned by the billionaire François
Pinault is displayed beneath the rotunda of the Bourse de Commerce and frescoes
of a colonialist past.
François Pinault, the French billionaire, has never had much time for
convention. “Avoid the paths already trodden,” has been his motto. Bored with
acquiring Impressionist or Cubist works with surefire credentials, he said to
himself four decades ago: “It’s impossible that we have become so stupid today
that there are no human beings alive capable of creating tomorrow’s
of that conviction are now on display in a contemporary art museum that opened
in Paris on Saturday under the cupola of the Bourse de Commerce. With the
Louvre to one side and the Pompidou Center to the other, this upstart in the
cultural life of Paris combines tradition and modernity.
grain exchange, the light-filled building has undergone a $170 million
redevelopment conceived by the Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Tadao
Ando, who previously worked with Pinault at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice. Ando
installed a 108-foot-diameter concrete cylinder inside the central rotunda,
creating a core display area while retaining the framework of the original.
palimpsest of French history,” as Martin Bethenod, the museum’s director, put
No layer of
the palimpsest has been concealed. Restored 19th-century frescoes beneath the
dome illustrate the global commerce of the time. Titled “Triumphal France,”
they amount to a primer in the demeaning stereotypes of a Eurocentric colonized
world where white traders did business with bare-chested African warriors.
juxtaposition with the many works in the galleries below by Black American
artists, including David Hammons and Kerry James Marshall, is potent. Their
pieces, driven by reflection on the grotesqueness and lasting wounds of racism,
seem charged by the setting.
is a theme. Nothing lasts, yet nothing is entirely gone. At the center of the
museum’s initial exhibition stands a wax replica of the 16th-century
Giambologna statue “The Abduction of the Sabine Women,” three writhing figures
intertwined. Created by the Swiss artist Urs Fischer, it was set alight at the
museum’s opening on Saturday and will burn for six months, leaving nothing
So a high
mannerist masterpiece becomes an elaborate giant candle: Sic transit gloria
mundi. The Bourse de Commerce itself has been rented from Paris City Hall on a
50-year lease — a reminder that the museum’s life span may not be eternal.
Ando’s cylinder is designed so that it can be removed once the lease expires.
Pinault, 84, a self-styled “troublemaker,” has always
been more interested in disruption than permanence.
rural Brittany, he went on to parlay a small timber business into a $42 billion
diversified luxury-goods conglomerate, including brands like Gucci and Saint
Laurent. I asked him about time passing. “Well, I am like everyone: As you grow
older, that issue gnaws at you a little, but I am not obsessed by the time that
may be left to me,” he said in an interview. “I hope it will be as long as
asked, can anyone take himself for important, confronted by the sweep of
history? “Humility must be worked on with a pumice stone every day,” he said.
“The ego is something that grows if you don’t apply weed killer.”
in his office at the Bourse de Commerce hangs “SEPT.13, 2001,” a work in black
and white by the Japanese artist On Kawara. It is a reminder that the
unimaginable can happen — that as Victor Hugo put it, “Nothing is more imminent
than the impossible.” Yet life continues nonetheless.
“The ego is something that grows if you don’t apply
weed killer,” said François Pinault, the luxury goods billionaire whose
collection is on show at the Bourse de Commerce.
Pinault, the project represents a long-held ambition to house some of his more
than 10,000 works by artists including Cy Twombly, Cindy Sherman, Damien Hirst,
Jeff Koons and Marlene Dumas in a Paris museum. That effort began about 20
years ago with plans, later aborted, to take over a disused Renault car factory
in the suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt.
Sherman’s work is on prominent display — including a haunting photograph of a
platinum-blonde woman, back turned, standing on a deserted American highway
with her suitcase beside her in a shadowy half-light — the exhibition does not
dwell on the giants of the Pinault Collection, as if the main aim were to jolt
Parisians emerging from months of coronavirus lockdown with an injection of the
new and little known in France.
said he had met David Hammons, a generally reclusive artist who came of age in
the 1960s and ’70s, more than 30 years ago. Hammons learned that Pinault was
the uneducated son of a peasant from a small Breton village. “He said we were
alike, and I burst out laughing and told him, ‘Well, not exactly!’”
So was an
unlikely friendship born. Its fruit is the more than 25 Hammons works on show
at the Bourse de Commerce.
But what of
those murals glorifying European colonization, with Christopher Columbus sweeping
down from the sky in a caravel to find half-naked Native Americans? “We were
convinced for a long time that we constituted civilization, the most evolved
people,” Pinault said. “I never accepted that.” In the frescoes, he added, was
“the beginning of global commerce, but dominated by Europe and France” — in
short, “everything that a David Hammons detests.”
artist was shown a video of the frescoes, and giant antique maps tracing
post-slavery trade routes dominated by European navies, he asked that his
“Minimum Security” installation, inspired by a visit to death row at San
Quentin State Prison, be placed against this backdrop. The squeaking and
clanging of a cell door seems to carry the echo of centuries of oppression.
criticize us and say it’s shameful,” Pinault said. “We could have hidden the
fresco — you can always hide something, that is cancel culture. And here, a
great African-American artist said, ‘Don’t hide it.’”
Aillagon, the Pinault Collection’s chief executive, said: “When you show it,
that does not mean you approve it. This was the image of trade at that moment,
and you can’t think yesterday with the mind of today.”
provocation. With almost Duchamp-like playfulness, Hammons challenges the
viewer to think again, as with “Rubber Dread,” deflated inner tubes woven into
dreadlocks. He reimagines detritus.
Marshall, another Black artist whom Pinault has collected for years, seems to
upend a whole Western tradition — Goya’s “Maya” or Manet’s “Olympia,” — with an
untitled painting of a Black man, naked but for his socks, lying on a bed with
a sidelong gaze, a Pan-African flag coyly covering his genitals.
said that his museum would not add much to Paris, but perhaps as a private
institution it could move faster while the committees at state-owned museums
pondered. “So perhaps you have a collection of things that would not otherwise
be here.” Perhaps, yes. He was being modest.
described himself as a restless nonconformist: “My roots are under the soles of
my shoes.” When life presents something important enough to entice you into a
journey, he suggested, “you have to take your suitcase, like that woman beside
the road in the Cindy Sherman photograph — my favorite.”
He was 19
when he left Brittany for the first time and came to Paris. He enlisted in the
army and went to Algeria, where war was raging. It was 1956. A parachutist, he
was ordered to comb through villages looking for Algerian rebels fighting
French colonial dominion. But the rebels were long gone; all that was left were
houses full of women, children and older people. Pinault said he confronted his
officer: “What the hell are we doing here? This war is already lost.”
Pinault,” he recalled the officer saying.
never has shut up. Instead, Pinault has made a fortune, a unique collection of
contemporary art and a life out of anticipation. “Only anticipate” could be
another of his mottos. As a result, Paris, sometimes a little set in its ways,
has something different, disruptive and challenging on offer at the Bourse de
is the Paris Bureau Chief of The Times. He was a columnist from 2009 to 2020.
He has worked for The Times for more than 30 years and has served as a foreign
correspondent and foreign editor. Raised in South Africa and Britain, he is a
naturalized American. @NYTimesCohen