In the Paris art calendar, Monumenta is fairly new. But, over just four years, it has proved incredibly popular. In what Parisians call an “annual encounter,” Monumenta asks a single artist to fill the whole Grand Palais. This year’s installation—titled Excentrique(s)—is by conceptual celebrity Daniel Buren. Buren is famous for several things: using only stripes in his work, considering the site of every artwork as part of the piece and a 1986 installation called Les Deux Plateaux. More casually known as “the columns of Buren,” this addition to the historic Palais Royal initially caused an uproar. Now, it is one of the city’s most popular landmarks.
Designed in 1900 as part of the Universal Exposition, the Grand Palais certainly offers a challenge. True to form, Buren has chosen to echo its structural elements, with a forest of colored circles elevated on his trademark stripes. This flatters the building by working as a giant kaleidoscope. In the center are huge, round mirrors that reflect the dome (itself checkered by Buren in bright blue overlays). For those who love taking photographs, it offers endless possibilities.
On a sunny day, however, all that glass adds up. So try not to go tired or thirsty and, if you can, avoid the hottest afternoon sun. Many of the huge stairways around the Grand Palais offer shade, plus there is an in-house café on the floor. Scaling at least one stairway is important since, the higher you go, the more the spectacle changes. Feel free also to chat with one of the numerous guides. (All sport white T-shirts with the Monumenta logo.) Buren is an interesting chap and they will tell you all about him, in English, Spanish, Japanese, etc., if you don’t speak French.
Next you can catch “Animal Beauty,” another current Grand Palais expo. I confess I went as a courtesy with an overheated colleague, just because I knew it was air-conditioned. The show—which is subtitled “From Dürer to Jeff Koons”—seemed like it would be a simple beauty-in-the-beast survey. However, when we left two hours later, I had to admit: this is one of the summer’s best shows.
To say its art is “eclectic” or “compelling” does not do it justice. After a slow start among the animals that played roles in medieval symbolism, it combines fascinating stories with amazing pieces. From Buffon’s natural history notebooks and La Fontaine’s fables to bats by Van Gogh and César, it takes visitors all the way to modern installation art. There isn’t a show in town that features bigger names, or more of them: you’ll see Rembrandt, Delacroix, Goya, Picasso, Courbet, Rubens, Bonnard, Manet and others. In addition to predictable—deer from Landseer and horses by Géricault—it is stuffed with delightful surprises.
Plus you will also meet some quirky protagonists. There is Clara (a rhinoceros who went to the Venice Carnival), Zarafa (the first giraffe ever seen in France, who made her way to Paris from Marseille on foot) or “Hans” and “Parkie” (two 18th-century elephants adored by Holland’s King William V). There are also artists like the long-lived François Pompon. Pompon, who started out as Rodin’s assistant, became famous during the ’30s for sleek and ultramodern sculptures.
I enjoyed learning about French “giraffe mania” even more than I enjoyed Monumenta. The air-conditioning helped but, if I had to choose, I would probably pick the creatures. I recommend you try both, as we did, then take Line 1 of the metro to Palais Royal–Musée du Louvre. There, after having a look at Buren’s columns, you should enjoy a quiet drink in the gardens. There is not a more perfect Paris art date in town.
A short stroll from the Grand Palais at 2, Rond Point des Champs-Elyseés, Italian “concept space” Motor Village has a small, free exhibit of Formula One cars: Maserati, Lancia and Ferrari. Run by Fiat for Parisians who love Italian style, this spot combines a show space, boutique, cocktail lounge and restaurant. If there are boys in your entourage, they may love this and they can queue to drive the simulator (which duplicates taking the wheel at Formula One speeds). There is video art by Hugues Reip, Pippo Lionni and Guillaume Paris. Free and open until September 2.