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Making a masterpiece: the Centre Pompidou-Metz

The Centre Pompidou's new sister museum in the eastern French town of Metz has opened with an exhibition called Masterpieces?
The Centre Pompidou-Metz was designed by the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban and the French architect Jean de Gastines.
The Centre Pompidou-Metz was designed by the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban and the French architect Jean de Gastines.

Last week's inauguration of the Centre Pompidou-Metz is a cultural boost for the French provinces, with its innovative architecture, the largest temporary exhibition space outside of Paris and the 65,000 strong collection of the Musée National d'Art Moderne to draw from. In the 1970s, Piano and Rogers' Centre Pompidou marked the arrival of modern architecture in Paris - and set a model for pluridisciplinary arts centres all over the world. So the daring Centre Pompidou-Metz, designed by the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban and the French architect Jean de Gastines, winners of an international competition launched in 2003, is set to transform this quiet historic town in eastern France. Needless to say, its arrival has provoked plenty of questions. Will it have a Bilbao Guggenheim effect, making the town an international tourist destination and spurring economic development? What are we actually going to see, and what, as the first time a major national art institution opens an annex, what can we learn about what is to come at Louvre Abu Dhabi?

The building, on first sight, hovering like a giant manta ray. The gleaming white skin, in a self-cleaning composite of fibreglass and Teflon, sits on a woven spruce structure, a hexagonal grid, like giant-scale caning, that undulates free-form. It is a technical feat involving computer modelling and 18 kilometres of laminated spruce, and was made in Germany. Wood was chosen for its durability and recyclability, but it also provides a contrast with the white, an incredible work of sculpture in itself. It creates endless interesting viewpoints, both inside and out; as well as showing through the translucent skin when the building is illuminated at night.

The roof floats over the building proper: an entrance forum, containing a bookshop, documentation centre, ticket desk, cafe and restaurant, children's workshops, performance space and cinema. Three 80 metre-long rectangular galleries, at 45-degree angles, jutting out through the façade and canopy, each aligned with a key city monument (park, station, cathedral). Together with the grand nave, capable of containing massive installations, they provide 5,000 square metres of galleries.

The Centre Pompidou-Metz is also about a dialogue between interior and exterior, with its city views, ground-level glazed façades that lift up between esplanade and forum, and a gap between the roof and the rest of the structure. While the exhibition galleries are air-conditioned with carefully controlled natural and artificial lighting, the overhanging roof allows the intermediary spaces to be naturally cooled. It's a building that manages to be "both powerful and light at the same time", say the architects, simple and complex, and what Philip Gumuchdjian, who collaborated in the original competition entry, describes as "a very nice coalition between East and West".

This is undoubtedly statement architecture, but is it going to be like Frank Gehry's Guggenheim in Bilbao, where the building is frequently more interesting than the shows inside? How will it establish its identity alongside or apart from its mother in Paris? And how will works be presented for an audience that is generally less accustomed to modern art than the French capital? According to the director Laurent Le Bon, he hopes to "present a new interpretation of the Centre Pompidou collection and give the keys to 20th and 21st century art".

The initial exhibition is stunning. Where one could have feared that Metz would get only the also-rans of the collection, at times one has the impression that the entire museum has been moved here. Of nearly 800 works, over 700 come from the Musée National d'Art Moderne, some of them pieces that one couldn't imagine leaving Paris, such as the fragile Matisse cut-out La Tristesse du Roi and Miro's Trois Bleus triptych that open and finish the first section of the show; while other works have been brought out that one has never or very rarely seen.

Chefs-d'oeuvre? - note the question mark - investigates the notion of the masterpiece. Centre Pompidou-Metz has adapted for a non-Parisian audience yet does not talk down. There are some Metz connections - one room plays tribute to the glassmaking tradition of Lorraine while keeping up the theme in the craftsmanship of a vast, delicate chandelier, on one hand, and the creativity of Emile Gallé's strange glass hand with seaweed and shells, on the other. There is a concentration on pre-1970 and on French art, but the choice is often brilliant.

First, the grand nave Masterpieces Throughout History considers changing conceptions of the masterpiece over time, from the apprentice's masterpiece, exemplified by an ivory casket and medieval manuscript, to the notion of masterpiece as something creative and different, concepts of modernity, and the history of the Musée National d'Art Moderne itself. Tastes change, too. Rediscovered 17th-century masters - Richer's white marble decomposing skeleton, a virtuoso piece of gruesomeness intended for a tomb, and engravings by Callot - are now appreciated for their originality; while another room is dedicated to the demoted artists who featured in the initial Musée National d'Art Moderne of the 1940s yet now linger forgotten in its storerooms.

In the second chapter, or Gallery 1, Stories Behind Masterpieces, you enter straight into the odour of Penone's Respirare l'Ombra, 1999-2000, a room panelled in bay leaves (laurel), against which a golden laurel crown hangs. The exhibition then takes a route through key artistic movements, including Fauves, cubism, the essentials of Surrealism, affichistes and nouveau réalistes (the French version of Pop art). There is also room here for one-offs including Tatlin's Monument to the Third International and large works by Louise Bourgeois and Bruce Nauman.

In Gallery 2, Dreams of Masterpieces, a dozen or so iconic works are arranged in a chronological row like an ideal museum. Works by Kupka, Giacometti, Kandinsky, Chagall and Dubuffet provide a whizz through art history that is documented and educational (texts are currently only in French, but English and German translations are set to be added), clearly explained yet letting works breath. Gallery 3, Masterpieces Ad Infinitum, covers the eclectic media, complexity and referentialism of contemporary art, where uniqueness and craftsmanship no longer apply, yet the notion curiously persists. In one room, three screens simultaneously show us suave James Stewart in Hitchcock's Vertigo, which influenced the gallery scene in Brian De Palma's Dressed to Kill, which is brilliantly parodied in Brice Dellsperger's spoof Body Double 15. Filiou's abandoned mop and bucket stands with a notice hung around it La Joconde est dans les escaliers (The Mona Lisa is on the stairs).

The exhibition also cleverly reveals the adaptability of Shigeru Ban's and Jean de Gastines' space. The four galleries have each been arranged in a quite different way. Downstairs, the grand nave is like a coiled necklace of small rooms, where classic white cubes alternate with dark blue corridors, doorways and dead ends. At the same time, there are openings to the exterior, where referential works by Picasso and film clips are projected directly on the glass, and places where you can see the museum structure (as the architects have remarked, at the original Centre Pompidou the pipes are on the outside, here they are inside), while a mirror suspended over the gallery gives puzzling glimpses of rooms, works and upside-down visitors, again a way of implicitly reflecting the notion of masterpiece.

Upstairs, Gallery 1 is a dense arrangement of white rooms of differing sizes, the classic museum space for the most classic part of the presentation, a mixture of closed spaces and open ones. Gallery 2 is divided longitudinally immediately revealing the double view of the tubular structure. The works are free of labels - but carefully documented and explained in the first corridor, from where you can spy them through a long horizontal split in the wall or go into the main space to see close-up. A third slice on the far side presents a history of modern museum architecture from Le Corbusier's unbuilt project of 1937 via both Centre Pompidous to buildings currently under construction, among them Sanaa's Louvre Lens and Gehry's Fondation Vuitton.

Finally in Gallery 3 you are cleverly funnelled up a dark corridor, hung with colourful Matisse, Kelly and Nemours, into the bright tube with zooming perspective of Metz's glorious Gothic cathedral, which paradoxically seems to fill the entire window as you enter the gallery and shrink into the distance as you draw closer: a metaphor for the intangibility of the masterpiece. At what is the most important museum to have opened in France for years, the inaugural show could easily have been portentous and pompous. Instead it is inspiring, thought-provoking and fun. There is even a sense of risk.

"In October 1949, at the Museum of Modern Art in Art in Paris, I noticed that the windows interested me more than the art exhibited in the galleries" Ellsworth Kelly is quoted as saying by Olivier Mosset. Fortunately, it is not true here. Beyond the exciting building, there is plenty to see and reflect on as one leaves the show. The Centre Pompidou-Metz (www.centrepompidou-metz.fr) is open every day except Tuesday. Masterpieces? runs until October 25.

Updated: May 17, 2010 04:00 AM