Arts & Leisure

By Jessica Zafra


The new Fondation Louis Vuitton museum in Paris: The building is remarkable, the art not so

Posted on November 26, 2014

YOU WOULD think that in a city teeming with museums, including a certain bodega called the Louvre, the citizens would be blasé about the opening of yet another one. But Parisians and tourists have been trooping to the Fondation Louis Vuitton, which opened last month at the Bois de Boulogne, the park-forest at the eastern edge of the city.

Controversy has attended the museum long before a single pane of glass was installed: it is on public land, and local groups protested that it would destroy the character of the park, children’s playground, and nature reserve. It took the French National Assembly to end the debate by passing a law declaring that the Fondation was in the national interest. (The building will become city property in 2062; the art will remain the property of Louis Vuitton’s parent company LVMH.)

The most talked-about aspect of the Fondation is its design by Frank Gehry, whose work is so remarkable, it is the subject of two concurrent exhibitions: a retrospective at the Pompidou, and a making-of-the-Fondation show at the museum itself. Since his building for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao made him the most famous architect on the planet, Gehry’s structures are regularly referred to as “iconic.” What “iconic” means, no one can say exactly. Certainly Gehry’s designs look like nothing else, except possibly each other. The retrospective at the Pompidou includes a model of the Fondation: sheets of plastic, tin and colored paper crumpled and glued together. And it was by no means the strangest thing in the lot. Next to it were hand towels rolled up and stacked vertically. What is truly amazing about Gehry’s structures is the way they are put together. One would think they could not be built, but they are.

It would seem that LVMH did not anticipate the level of public interest in their new museum, because getting there requires some inconvenience. Visitors must go to Etoile, near the Arch of Triumph, to catch the cute boxy electric vans that will take them to the Fondation. (What is it with French automotive design and toasters?) The van can only accommodate 22 passengers; the fare is €1.

Of course, one need not endure this if one has a car and driver. I began to suspect that the inconvenience was not an oversight, but part of the marketing plan. LVMH sells luxury goods, and luxury goods must appear so desirable that people would do anything to possess them -- line up, get on waiting lists, pay high prices. They are the opposite of egalitarian, they are exclusive. Louis Vuitton can only charge €14 for a museum ticket (and that’s more than the Louvre or the newly renovated Picasso Museum charges), but they can make visitors line up and wait.

Finally the van approached the Fondation Louis Vuitton and we could see the building with our own eyes. It is amazing. It is as if a zeppelin crash-landed on Waterworld, and the scavengers made a giant sailboat with the parts. How does it stand up? More importantly, how can the art inside compete with the exterior?

We were disgorged by the van into a long queue for tickets, even if it was just two and a half hours before closing time. Tickets in hand, we joined the next queue at the main entrance. Above the main door is a big, glittering LV logo that made me feel like I was entering an enormous handbag. A guard inspected our bags while a lady with a clipboard asked each visitor where she was from. There was some discussion over whether some Americans with a baby in a stroller should be admitted. The experience was not unlike being judged by the doorman before gaining entry into a trendy nightclub.

The lobby is smaller than the sprawling exterior led us to expect, and we wasted the first half-hour looking for the washrooms (It’s very cold outside). Which are few, tiny, and hidden away. Owing to the building’s shape, the galleries are asymmetrical: I do not envy the curators who must match the exhibits to the unusual configurations. The main problem, as far as I could tell, is that the building has no flow or movement -- you don’t know where to go next, you simply stagger along until you bump into the next gallery. Sometimes literally, painfully, as the walls tilt towards you like the dream architecture in Inception.

What of the art? The galleries contain the work of major artists like Gerhard Richter, Taryn Simon and Elsworth Kelly, but the selection is rather bland and unmemorable. The adjective is “Safe,” reminding us that this is a corporate project after all, and they don’t want to risk alienating anyone. Certainly not anyone who buys their handbags; in fact those paintings would not be out of place on scarves and dresses. I’m pretty sure I walked past the Olafur Eliasson installation Inside the Horizon, described as a series of reflecting columns by a pool of water, but I thought it was part of the building.

That’s another problem: the art has to compete with the building, and the building wins. Why would I be interested in those mobiles when over there is a window that lets me see the giant glass sails? On the whole, the art put me in mind of my friend Noel Orosa’s conversation-stopper: Would you rather be the event of the year, or the non-event of the century?

After surveying the merchandise in the gift shop -- €90 for a candle -- we decided to get a much-needed caffeine fix at the café, named Frank (I wonder why). Of course there was a line to enter the café, even if several tables were unoccupied. There were some old Vuitton trunks affixed to the wall, which would be charming if this weren’t an art museum.

We ordered two café crème and waited. And waited. Fifteen minutes later, a waiter appeared bearing two espressos. “No, we ordered café crème.” The espressos disappeared, and were replaced 10 minutes later by two more espressos. “No, we ordered café crème.”

Ten minutes later, a waitress put two café lattes on our table and said, in rapid French, “Café crème is just coffee with milk. This is better than café crème, this is café latte. It has foam on top.”

“That’s wonderful, but we ordered café crème,” my friend pointed out.

“Never mind, take the latte, I don’t want to wait another hour,” I said. We still had to fall in line for the van to take us out of the woods. After we lined up to pay for our coffees.

The electric van was parked outside, but the driver was admitting no one. He sat in the van for several minutes, filling out forms. Finally he opened the door and said, “We can’t go until the other van arrives.” Why, we wondered. Wouldn’t it make more sense for the van to fill up with passengers and go, then come back and ferry the other people freezing in the queue?

Then the driver began to let passengers into the van. He pointed at various people in line, indicating that they could come in. Was there an admissions policy? Was it like Sophie’s Choice?

Finally the van was full, but we sat there, not moving, until the other van arrived. Then the driver collected our fares and issued tickets, something that could’ve happened 15 minutes earlier. But then I suppose efficiency is not the objective. One must suffer for fashion.