Another Fabulous Staircase by Frank Gehry

Another fabulous staircase by Frank Gehry (see Art Gallery of Ontario).

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Though it reeks of money and is founded on vulgarity (I am no great admirer of the Louis Vuitton brand), Frank Gehry’s Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris is a magnificent and expressive construction. Likened by many to a ship, I see it, rather, as a praying mantis about to prey, or another huge insect with an exoskeleton.

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As you make your way through it, every twist and turn a surprise, the gallery feels almost improvised, as if made by a child from a kit of glass, wood, steel and slabs, braced here and there haphazardly as it grew. But no doubt there’s subtle mathematics (and probably huge computational power) behind this extraordinarily complicated construction. At least I hope so. Gehry takes the materials of which so many sober and tightly controlled modernist buildings are made and puts them together with joy, if not the impatience of a child. It’s Baroque elation rather than Renaissance austerity.

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Unlike the Sydney Opera House, whose striking exterior was conceived without much thought as to how an opera auditorium and concert hall might be crammed inside its sails, the inside spaces of this building don’t disappoint. It’s a beautifully organised exhibition space made up of vast cool galleries, many with more than a sliver of natural light, each leading on to the next one, adjoining levels linked by escalators and staircases that thread their way from floor to floor. Half-enclosed, half-exposed decks beneath the propped up canopies offer views of the Bois de Boulogne and the water basin in which the building stands.

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Even the door handles are deliberate, and distinctive. It looks expensive and it is. The building cost around 100 million pounds.

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The gallery is far more interesting than its current exhibition of pop art and musical or sound-based pieces, a third selection from the vast LVMH collection. There are a dozen or so works by Andy Warhol, including the usual cynically self-celebratory self-portraits (they do nothing for me), a monumental political triptych by Gilbert and George, video art in the basement, musical art on the upper decks. Some is decorative, some almost beautiful, much of it banal, or pretentious, and a little that’s pure torture: a large dark cube in the basement where you’re sonically assaulted and brutally machine-gunned by projections on all four walls, and a clicking room of deck chairs and asynchronous metronomes – an installation called Rejuvenator of the Astral Balance by Marina Abramovic.

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metronome hell

A delightful John Cage musical sculpture, and a roomful of mirrors and filmed close-ups of a performance of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola were my favourites.

I’m in Paris for a software conference at the appallingly brutal Palais de Congres, a short walk through the park from the Louis Vuitton Foundation and a depressing contrast.

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But I suppose you can’t live an exuberant Frank Gehry kind of life all the time.

The Art Gallery of Ontario

You’re lucky if you can find the way to your plane at most of today’s airports. They’re no longer merely the arrival and departure points for aircraft, but also shopping malls, restaurants, clubs for the privileged, and places of entertainment too. Heathrow Terminal 5, for example, is an obstacle course of retail and gastronomic distractions. So much so that sometimes the airport is the most fun you’ll have on holiday. Why board the plane?

Art galleries, too, have caught on to this, albeit for loftier motives. Ticket sales aren’t enough to keep the paintings on the walls. Without substantial subsidies galleries can’t afford merely to provide space for their paintings to hang, and cabinets for their curiosities. They must explore every possible avenue of cash generation.

The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto, which I visited on Saturday, is a fine example of this approach. Since its reworking in 2008 by Frank Gehry (a native of the city) it houses an upmarket restaurant, a shop that’s as large as any of the exhibition rooms, a café, a ‘function room’ for hire (where better to get married than in the company of a Francis Bacon and a Bernini Pope), and a cluster of education and research centres.

Once you’ve passed through the arrivals hall, avoiding the VIP check-in desk (a kind of art gallery version of business class), you’re left wondering where to go if you’re to see any actual paintings.

If you’re interested in architecture, though, the building is probably your destination (just as, if you’re a fan of Norman Foster, then Heathrow Terminal 5 is probably as much fun as wherever you’re off to). Gehry’s adaptation of the neoclassical central courtyard, and a hotch-potch of 1970s extensions, is an imaginative balance of the classical, the modern and the extravagant (a wooden spiral staircase twists and slithers its way from the first floor to the roof and beyond).

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The tall tower building at the rear of the gallery is clad in cool blue, reflective titanium.

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But somewhere inside, if you can find it, there’s the collection itself (a selection from 80,000 paintings and other kinds of bric-a-brac) – a very manageable display of paintings by the French Impressionists (a beautiful Renoir, a Degas, a Monet (usually just one of everything)), the Renaissance and Flemish masters, all generously arranged and well lit. There’s an unexpectedly huge roomful of Henry Moore’s vast and dignified reclining and standing figures, in quiet but far from lonely communion, perhaps more of them together in one place here than you could ever see together elsewhere.

There’s a whole floor devoted to the work of Canada’s native artists. And you mustn’t overlook the African and photographic collections either, or a special temporary exhibition of disturbing images related to nuclear power, explosive and utilitarian.

Get a slice of this…

Atomic Cake-lo

The AGO is also a monument to generosity, and its fabric is as labelled as its contents. Indeed the labels are larger. You’re passing from one room to another through the ‘Rosy Tannenbaum walkway’, the roof is supported by the ‘Wasabi Family supporting girder’, the ‘Helen Battersby’ door sits snugly in ‘the Mary Minder door frame’, and the paintings are kept in good condition by ‘the David Clark and family humidifier,’ and so on. I presume the lavatories too are named, but I didn’t feel the need to check.