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Art & History
April 2020

Jeu de Paume : From ball court to photo showcase

The museum has both a rich past and a place in the present on the cutting edge of art.

Photo credit:

Chris Welsch

An elegant, 19th-century building with a view over the Place de la Concorde and the Tuileries Gardens, the Jeu de Paume Museum occupies a prominent spot in the geography of Paris — and in its history.

“The Jeu de Paume is a curious place because when it was built in 1861 it was a ball court, but since then has lived many different lives,” said Quentin Bajac, the recently appointed director of the museum. “Now it has evolved into a place that explores all types of mechanically created imagery.”

Bajac, who previously was the top curator for photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is also the author of a three-volume history of photography. He was speaking to welcome a group of guests from Secret Journeys, invited to get a behind-the-scenes look at one of the world’s foremost venues for photographic arts.

Built by Napoleon III as an indoor court for the then-popular forerunner of tennis (Jeu de Paume, or palm game), the building has seen many transformations since then. Later in the century, it became an exhibition hall managed by the Louvre, and eventually a museum for Modern and Contemporary art in the years leading to World War II. The Nazis used it as a depot to store art they were ransacking from Jewish families and French museums. After another stint as an art museum, in 2004, the Jeu de Paume became dedicated to photography and visual media.

Alan Riding, storyteller for this new journey and a former New York Times Paris bureau chief and author, explained that the building is animated by the spirit of Rose Valland, a curator at the Jeu de Paume during World War II when Herman Goering oversaw the theft of art on a massive scale. “She spoke German, but she never let the Nazis know that,” Alan said. “She understood everything that was happening, and for four years she kept a secret record of every piece of art to pass through the building. Most of that art was recuperated after the war.”

In terms of art, the current exhibition at the Jeu de Paume poses a sharp contrast to the Impressionist and Modern works that came and went during the war years. “The Supermarket of Images” features works by current artists who are questioning how the explosive growth of imagery in our daily lives forms a type of separate economy that affects our thoughts, our identities, and our behaviors.

Éve Lepaon, a guide and instructor at the Jeu de Paume, led the group on a private visit to the exhibition. In explaining one of the first works we encountered — Evan Roth’s “Since You Were Born” — she pointed out that every day more than 3 billion images are shared on the social networks. Roth’s artwork consists of thousands of small images he downloaded from the Web during a three-month period after his daughter was born. They are plastered over entire walls of the museum, giving a vertiginous sense of the flow of imagery that passes by us each day.

Next, our eye was caught by a gilded shopping cart, bathed in a rotating spotlight that cast a moving shadow across the blank wall behind it. “By taking the shopping cart out of its banal context, its value changes,” Éve said, “and it poses a question: do we consume imagery in the same way we consume things in a market?”

Secret Journeys’ Jeu de Paume experience, which includes a chance to meet Quentin Bajac, gives guests an exclusive opportunity to experience both the fascinating history behind the place and its cutting-edge photography shows.

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