1920s: ‘This is Not a Pipe’ by René Magritte
During les Années Folles (the crazy years), Paris became the meeting point for surrealist masters such as René Magritte, Salvador Dalí, and Max Ernst. The surrealists sought to blend the unconscious and conscious in order to question our conceptions of reality. Magritte (a.k.a. the Belgian in the bowler hat) challenged the viewer’s concept of a meaningful connection between an image, an idea, and an object. He created a series of paintings entitled The Treachery of Images which included the iconic, ‘This is Not a Pipe,’ painted in Paris in 1929. By presenting an image of a pipe, he forces his audience to question the nature of representation in art. What is the difference between a pipe and a painting of a pipe” Magritte’s pipe would become the main subject for one of Michel Foucault’s philosophic essays.
See it at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
1930s: ‘The Persistence of Memory’ by Salvador Dalí
The surrealist movement continued well into the 1930s, with Salvador Dalí, living and working in Montmartre, contributing actively to the surrealist school in Paris. First exhibited in Paris in 1931, Dalí’s ‘The Persistence of Memory,’ captures the eccentricity of the movement. In a dreamlike landscape, timepieces inexplicably melt ‘like camembert in the sun,’ provoking us to question our static concepts of time. Very interesting when considered as a precursor to the most interruptive event of the century: World War II.
Visit the Espace Dali in Montmartre to see a permanent collection solely dedicated to the peculiar artist.
1940s: ‘The Bull’s Head’ by Pablo Picasso
Another Spanish-born artist who worked in Paris, Pablo Picasso was one of the most disruptive minds and greatest artistic masters of the century. Perhaps best known for his portraits and ‘The Young Ladies of Avignon,’ his somewhat less-known ‘The Bull’s Head’ is just as compelling. Assembled from ‘found objects,’ (a bicycle seat and handle bars) this piece has time again been called a startling representation of the ‘transforming power of the human imagination.’
Don’t miss the newly reopened Picasso Museum which houses many of Picasso’s most influential pieces.
1950s: ‘Le Monde Perdu’ by Pierre Alenchinsky
Liberated, Post-war Paris brought forth a new art movement called Tachisme, from the French word tache, or stain, in which artists used splotches of paint to compose their works. Pierre Alechinsky was one of these new artists, producing works similar to American expressionist Jackson Pollock. Alenchinsky’s ‘Le Monde Perdu‘ (The Lost World) captures the post-WWII sentiment of confusion in an overturned world, especially in Paris.
You can see Alenchinsky’s work at the Centre Pompidou-Metz, a 3 hour drive from Paris.
1960s: Ceiling of the Opera Garnier by Marc Chagall
France continued its struggles with uncertainty and identity in the 1960s, which opened with its (now ex-)colony Algeria warring for independence. So it came as a shock to the country when André Malraux, France’s Minister of Culture, selected a Jewish immigrant – far removed from French artistic traditions – to paint the ceiling of the newly opened Paris Opera House, Le Palais Garnier. Unveiled in 1964, Marc Chagall’s whimsical modernist ceiling is today one of the most famous and beloved works of art in Paris. The Opera House itself is romanticized in Gaston Leroux’s novel, The Phantom of the Opera.
1970s: ‘The César; by César Baldaccini
Frequenting the local junk yard, César Baldaccini experimented with crushing cars and other metal rubbish. At the same time, he created sculpture pieces following the New Realism movement. Baldaccini’s concept for an award statuette, a small version of his crushed metal sculptures, was adapted in 1976. You can see this creative award on TV every year at the César Awards, the equivalent to the American Oscars. A few of Baldaccini’s other sculptures are scattered about Paris, including ‘The Thumb,’ which is a bizarre must-see, positioned next to the Grande Arche in La Défense.
1980s: The Stravinsky Fountain by Niki de Saint Phalle
Niki de Saint Palle captured not only the joyous, colorful spirit of the ’80s, but also the ecstatic new power of women in the latter half of the 20th century (see ‘Les Nanas,’ or ‘The Women’). In the early 1980s, she was commissioned to bring a lively, colorful aspect to Jean Tinguely’s black metal sculptures for the Stravinsky Fountain. Niki de Saint Phalle’s largest piece in the center is called ‘The Firebird’ and represents Igor’s Stravinsky’s ballet of the same title. Enjoy this unique sculpture garden while sitting on the steps of the Church of Saint-Merri, or by grabbing a quick espresso at the several outdoor cafés that overlook the fountain.
1990s: World Skin, a Photo Safari in the Land of War by Maurice Benayoun
With the explosion of the internet in the late 1990s, art in Paris needed to keep up with public demand for interaction. So in 1997, Algerian-born artist Maurice Benayoun created an interactive art experience entitled World Skin, a Photo Safari in the Land of War. As the title suggests, viewers not only look at phographs of war, but are taken on virtual journey through a land overtaken by war. Today, Maurice Benayoun is based in Hong Kong and continues to create interactive art installations.
2000s: ‘Space Invader’ by Invader
At the turn of the millennium, street art swept through Paris, along with underground artists Blek le Rat, Christian Guémy, Fred le Chevalier, and mostly famously, Invader. This anonymous French artist has ‘invaded’ dozens of cities globally, ‘hacking public space’ by affixing pixellated images inspired by the ’70s video game, Space Invader. Invader has kept his identity secret, despite being featured in Banksy’s film Exit Through the Gift Shop and publishing several books detailing the locations he has ‘hacked’.
Follow the invasion around Paris, and don’t forget to keep your eyes up to the sky.
2010s: ‘Chut!’ by Jef Aérosol
And one of our Paris favorites…Next to the Stravinsky Fountain and an example of Paris’ growing love of street art, ‘Chut!’ is a larger-than-life work which blends graffiti techniques with photo-realism. The artist is graffiti professional Jean-François Perroy who has been active since the 1980s under the pseudonym Jef Aérosol. His street art can be found tucked away in several corners of Paris.