I have previously written about my fondness for the Grand Palais, the glass, iron and stone structure near the Champs-Elysées that is dedicated to temporary exhibits. Recently I saw two very different shows there, a Helmut Newton retrospective and an exhibit called "Animal Beauty" about the depiction of animals in art.
I've never been a big Helmut Newton fan. While I can admire his technical skill and the fact that he has a distinctive vision, his use of nudity and S&M tropes in what are ostensibly fashion photos tend to get my feminist hackles up (the phrases "women as objects" and "the male gaze" spring to mind). I've read interviews where he talked about nudity as revealing truth and how he wanted fashion photos not look like fashion photos, but deep down I always suspected it was just an excuse to photograph beautiful women without their clothes on.
And while I am not a total Newton convert, I do have to say that seeing the retrospective did what good retrospectives should - it made me give the artist's work a long second look. Seeing the large-sized photos in person is a very different experience than seeing them in a magazine. For the first time, I could see that the women in all their nakedness or dominatrix gear really do have a defiant power and are not mere objects. (In fact, there was one large photo of a solitary bull who's expression, I swear, looked just like models in the large nudes).
Many of Newton's fashion shoots included images of images (tv's, x-rays, a photographer or filmmaker shooting the scene within the scene) which add an extra layer of commentary on the whole "gaze" issue. So clearly there's a lot more going on here than cool pictures of hot women. I'm not sure where this exhibit is going after Paris, but if you get the chance, I definitely recommend seeing it for yourself - but leave the kids (if you've got them) at home.
An exhibit that is much more child friendly is "Beauté Animale", which traces the representation of animals in art from the Renaissance to the modern day. To be honest, I've never much thought about when and how animals first appeared in art but it makes sense that the evolution of animal art would mirror how humans perceive animals throughout history (from objects of study to cherished members of the family) as well as how art itself has evolved (from religious depictions through naturalism to a more personal vision).
The drawings, paintings and sculptures presented in the exhibit all depict animals as the focus, rather than just a background element. Artists as diverse as Audubon, Dégas, Louise Bourgeoise and Jeff Koons are represented and I particularly appreciated the sleek sculptures of late 19th/early 20th century sculptor Pompon, whose work I didn't know very well.
As neither the Newton exhibit or Beauté Animale takes too long to see, they provide the perfect opportunity to go across the street for a visit to the Petit Palais. Like the Grand Palais, the Petit Palais was built for the 1900 World's Fair. It was thereafter given to the city of Paris for use as fine arts museum. Most first time visitors to Paris never make it to the Petit Palais as it's much smaller and less well-known than the Louvre or the d'Orsay, whose enormous collections cover much of the same artistic territory.
But that's a shame, since what the Petit Palais lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality and has the big advantage of being one of the few free museums in Paris. When I went recently, there was a lovely mini-exhibit of School of Nancy art-nouveau glasswork. There are also fine paintings by Courbet, Monet and Cézanne among others. Yes, you can see similar works in the d'Orsay, but not in the same setting. The building itself, with its stained-glass windows, mosäic floors and semi-circular interior garden, is a work of art. (Paris Insider's tip: the pleasant café, which looks out onto the garden, is one of the best places in the area for a light lunch or hot drink).
So if you're coming to Paris, or live here and haven't visited since its renovation, I highly recommend stopping by the Petit Palais. After the bustle of the Champs-Elysées or the immensity of the Grand Palais, it's an approachable oasis of calm and beauty. And did I mention it's free?