PARIS — Most tourists in the City of Light hightail it to the Louvre to glimpse the Mona Lisa and to the Musée D'Orsay to view masterworks by the Impressionists. But if you have a little more time to spare, I highly recommend a quick trip to the Left Bank to the Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain (Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art).
The airy glass building by Pritzker-award winning architect Jean Nouvel is a sight onto itself. But the current exhibit by Ron Mueck only adds to the pleasure. The Australian sculptor who lives in London is not exactly a household name, but his riveting figures — some larger-than-life, others almost in miniature — will stay in your memory long after an overseas trip is over.
The airy glass building by Pritzker-award winning architect Jean Nouvel is a sight onto itself. But the current exhibit by Ron Mueck only adds to the pleasure.
The Cartier exhibit wasn't on my Paris agenda until the company's representatives recommended the tour as an unforgettable addition. While known for its exquisite jewelry, Cartier has a keen interest in contemporary art, having created a foundation in 1984 to showcase established artists as well as up-and-comers.
The starkly modern museum stands out amid the 18th century buildings on the Boulevard Raspail. Made of steel and lots of glass, it's a see-through structure with an overgrown garden in the back, landscaped by Lothar Baumgarten, which is a popular hangout on a sunny summer day.
While I instantly fell in love with the building, I wasn't prepared for the exhibit of nine hyper-realistic sculptures by Mueck, an artist I had never heard of but one I will not forget. His work is not often displayed (the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth featured an exhibition of 13 of his pieces in 2007) but the Cartier Foundation has a special relationship with him, having shown his work in 2005 and again now.
For this exhibit, Mueck created three new sculptures, including "Couple Under An Umbrella," a set of oversized figures that dominates one large room of the museum, in addition to six recent sculptures (among them, a nude middle-aged woman arching backwards under the weight of the twigs she bears, a young African-American man who realizes he has been stabbed and a muscular man in sunglasses resting on a raft).
Because of its size and position in a room off from the entrance, the "Couple Under an Umbrella" immediately draws attention. The larger-than-life figures are resting on the beach in their sunset years; the women looks at her sleeping mate with an intense longing that still burns. Or is it a wistfulness for what never was?
Searching for meaning
Mueck doesn't speak about his work, so visitors are free to make up their own stories. My guide, Caroline, has fallen in love with the figures and has made up all sorts of backstories for the couple. She believes they aren't married since he's not wearing a wedding ring. I explain in the United States, it's common for a man not to wear a wedding ring, so that may not be the case.
When looking at a Mueck sculpture, it's easy to let your imagination run wild.
In a downstairs room, Mueck presents a sculpture of a young couple who appear to be in love. But look how he is holding her wrist in a way that could be construed as threatening. Things in a Mueck exhibit are never what they seem.
To me, the duo looks like a younger version of the couple upstairs. The backstory I create is the young couple were in a fractious relationship but remained together. They may have gone through some trying times but have survived their differences into old age.
In another sculpture, a weary-looking mother carrying a bag of groceries with her baby strapped to her chest looks like the older woman in an earlier incarnation while another sculpture of a ghostly man in a boat, appears to be her husband near death. When looking at a Mueck sculpture, it's easy to let your imagination run wild.
The figures, made with silicone, have a life-like intensity. There are wrinkles and age spots in the face and the body; the man has hairy ears and stubble; fingers are marked with half-moon circles at the cuticle.
In a celebrity era when everyone strives to glamorize figures, Mueck finds intensity in everyday life. He started his career as a model maker and puppeteer for children's films and it shows in his work. For those who want to know more, a new 50-minute film, Still Life: Ron Mueck at Work, is shown continuously in the museum during the exhibit (see a snippet of it below). The video follows Mueck in his London studio as he creates the figures.
The exhibit is so popular that it has been held over another month, through Oct. 29. Admission is 9.50 euros (about $12.30) for adults, 6.50 euros (about $8.45) for students and seniors.