Petit Palais Director Annick Lemoine: Working For a Living Museum

La Gazette Drouot
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Annick Lemoine, appointed director of the Petit Palais in Paris two years ago, unveils plans and ambitions designed to make it somewhere for everyone.

How would you sum up these two years at the helm of the Petit Palais?
Since 2018, I had overseen the Musée Cognacq-Jay: it was a very interesting period, with numerous projects underway, including doubling the exhibition space. And then came this extraordinary opportunity for me, as a specialist in 17th and 18th century European painting, to join the Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris. It’s a very stimulating job that requires a great deal of energy, and I’m lucky that I can rely on an amazing team. I knew the place well, especially since the exhibition “The Baroque Underworld – Vice and Poverty in Rome “, which I co-curated here after presenting it at the Villa Medici. Museum attendance has picked up again over the last two years, and we’re very proud of our positioning, the 8.7% rise in attendance and, of course, the success of the Sarah Bernhardt exhibition. It all augurs very well for the future.

Your predecessor Christophe Leribault made his mark, particularly with an ambitious exhibition policy. Do you plan to carry on in the same way?
I inherited a very fine program, which I fully support and am keen to continue—while imbuing it with my own vision, of course. I’m in phase with this idea of alternating blockbusters and new discoveries, and our plans are certainly along those lines. In September, we’ll feature both Jose de Ribera, one of leading masters of the Spanish Golden Age, in his first monographic exhibition in France, and Bruno Liljefors, a Swedish wildlife artist who is little known here in France. French public collections have plenty of paintings by Ribera, because his work was given a new lease of life in the 19th century thanks to Théophile Gautier. A lot of his works were bought by art lovers, many of whom donated them to museums later. There’s also a scientific reason for this: some years ago, it was established that the Master of the Judgement of Solomon (named after the painting in the Borghese Gallery—Ed.) and Ribera were one and the same, making him the earliest, and indeed the most striking exponent of Caravaggism. This is the first time the entire career of “Lo Spagnoletto” will be reconstructed, and it will be a chance for the public to rediscover an extraordinary artist.

View of the exhibition Le Paris de la modernité. Paris MuséesPetit PalaisGautier Deblonde
View of the exhibition “Le Paris de la modernité”. Paris Musées/Petit Palais/Gautier Deblonde

What other exhibitions are you planning for 2025?
The Petit Palais’ reputation and loyal audience mean that we can put forward new ideas and try hitherto unexplored subjects. For example, in spring 2025, in cooperation with Galliera, the couturier Worth will be in the spotlight. In the same vein, we’ll also be staging an exhibition of jewelry designs from our collections. For the tercentenary of Jean-Baptiste Greuze‘s birth, we want to look at his career through the prism of childhood, a theme that considerably stirred French society and philosophers from the 18th century onwards. Greuze tackled questions of education, focusing on adolescence and highly contemporary subjects. The very next exhibition, “Théodore Rousseau: the Voice of the Forest“, will present a 19th-century artist who also championed modern causes. It was partly through his action that, in 1861, Napoleon III agreed to classify certain plots in the Fontainebleau forest as “artistic series”, i.e. areas exempt from sylvicultural operations, even before the creation of Yellowstone Park! Maintaining interest in the past by making it resonate with the present, and showing yesterday’s artists in tune with today’s world, seems to me an appealing way to tempt the public through our doors.

Do you have a specific program for the Olympic Games, like many other places?
We won’t have an exhibition as such: more of a reinterpretation of our collections. Sports events will be staged at the Grand Palais just across the street, and the Olympics are opening up to break dancing, so we’ll be inviting street artists to come and interact with the permanent collections. The idea is to attract new audiences while maintaining the spirit of the Fine Arts. The “Body in Motion” circuit will feature pieces from Greek antiquity to 1914, taken from both the collections on display and the reserves. One of our ideas is to refresh the way people look at the permanent collections.

Talking of which, when you arrived at the Petit Palais, you said you were keen to discuss redesigning the permanent circuit. How do you imagine this?
I want to make the Petit Palais an everyday museum, a place of culture people visit and come back to—on their own, with their families, during a lunch break. To achieve this, we need to draw on the endless variety of our collections. The “Treasures in Black and White” exhibition, based on the Eugène Dutuit collection, was an unexpected success, bringing in 78,000 visitors. This has really inspired us. One idea is to boost the impact of works by highlighting the singularity of the men and women behind these incredible riches. For instance, we have ten works by Gustave Courbet, seven of which were donated by his younger sister Juliette. We also have Paul Cézanne‘s Three Bathers, gifted by Henri Matisse, who bought it from Ambroise Vollard in 1899. And there is a room donated, in 1921, by a Francophile philanthropist husband and wife, the Tucks, which is our period room, in a way. We want to tell their story and open up various points of entry to the collections. We are also keen to guide our visitors, so that when they enter a room, their attention immediately focuses on the key work—so the signage will be completely redesigned. We’d also like to open a permanent graphic art section, with drawings displayed on a rotating basis, depending on current events or restoration work, for example. The success of “Treasures in Black and White” has really encouraged us in this direction. The Petit Palais is also one of the symbols of Paris 1900: we’re going to build on this DNA by creating an immersive room with new technological tools, which will tell the story of the building as a foretaste to a tour of the collections.

Interior garden, Petit Palais. Paris Musées/Petit Palais/Benoit Fougeirol

How are you financing all these projects?
The BPCE Group, a partner of Paris Musées, is the main sponsor of the Petit Palais for three years. Thanks to this commitment, we’ll be able to tackle these huge projects and others, such as restoring Paul-Albert Baudouin’s fresco on the peristyle vault. After that, we’ll be developing the garden, which is truly the living heart of this place, and restoring the cupola by Maurice Denis.

What is your acquisitions policy?
We want to keep it dynamic, so we’ll shortly be setting up a collectors’ circle. Rather surprisingly, the Petit Palais doesn’t have a friends’ association. In June 2023, we preempted Albert Edelfelt’s Portrait of Henry Marcel (former director of the Musées Nationaux—Ed.) at Drouot, to general applause! For almost 20 years now, the Petit Palais has been keen to explore the work of foreign artists, particularly those who came to Paris from Scandinavia to share in the modernity of their contemporaries. We’d like to devote a permanent section to them.

“Le Paris de la modernité” (“Paris in Modern Times”) (1905-1925)”, Petit Palais, Paris 75007
Until April 14, 2024.

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