Paris' Musée d'Art Moderne: Modern Art and a Mysterious Art Heist
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
Listen up, culture vultures. I have been to many Paris museums, both large and small, in my many visits over the years. Off the typical tourist circuit, Paris' Museum of Modern Art (or "MAM" as it is known) is a must see nerve center for modern art. It's also the scene of a dramatic one man "Spiderman" art theft, described as the "heist of the century."
MAM is in a prime location in the eastern wing of the Tokyo Palace, overlooking the Seine and the Eiffel Tour. It was inaugurated in 1961 and has over 10,000 works of art from the 20th and 21st centuries. The museum has high ceilings, open spaces and is filled with colorful eye-catching art.
The permanent collection is free to the public and and showcases major artistic movements, including Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism, and Orphism. There are works by Picasso, Derain, Chagall, Modigliani, and Sonia and Robert Delaunay.
Once you walk through the ornate bronze doors, you'll find no queue and no crowd -- a welcome relief if you've just been to the Louvre or the D'Orsay. It's one of Paris' best smaller museums.
And the outdoor cafe is divine (in theory), with a view of the Eiffel Tower. The February day I visited, the skies unleashed, and I was stuck inside with my espresso, contemplating a mystery surrounding MAM. An unsolved mystery.
The "Spiderman" Heist
On a chilly spring day in 2010, in the dead of night, Vjeran Tomic cut a padlock, smashed a ground floor window, and snuck into MAM unhindered. Dubbed the “spiderman thief” for his acrobatic ability to scale buildings during his previous robberies, Tomic needed none of those skills for this disturbingly easy heist.
The museum’s alarm system had malfunctioned and was awaiting repair. Clad in black and wearing a mask, Tomic snuck past three dozing security guards and cut five paintings out of their frames, valued at over $100 million. Then, he vanished into the night. The MAM heist left the art world and the public in shock.
The paintings --which included a Matisee, Picasso, Modigiliani, Léger, and Braque -- are still missing. The loss of a Modigliani makes me sad. There are so few of them in the world because of his short life.
The Art Theft Business
Art theft is a booming business. More than 50,000 pieces of artwork are stolen each year globally.
Art thefts are rarely taken to order. The works may serve as collateral in underworld dealings or be sold to private collectors.
With little law enforcement or regulation, dealers prepared to look the other way, and the business of fakes and forgeries, art thiefs may be busy for decades.
But while stealing art is relatively easy, translating the theft into cash is not. The typical thief has no idea who will buy his loot.
Because art thieves can't sell highly recognizable artwork through legitimate channels, the most they can expect is 10% of the value on the open market. If they get desperate and try to sell the art to strangers or ransom it back to the real owner, they may be caught.
What Of The MAM Paintings?
Which circles back to the plight of MAM. The thief with the superhero nickname nearly got away with it.
Tomic was arrested only the following year after an anonymous tip resulting from him bragging about the heist. After a 2017 trial, he was jailed for 8 years and fined.
But what of the paintings that Tomic claimed to love? Another accomplice claims to have destroyed them, but this is most likely a ruse. There remains a glimmer of hope that the paintings have been spirited away to another country and will eventually re-surface, or that the thieves will emerge from jail one day to retrieve their loot.
In the meantime, having learned its lesson, MAM beefed up its security.
What To See In Paris' Museum of Modern Art
Against that rather romantic backdrop, you can attack the beautiful collection that remains. The artwork that missed Tomic's thieving eye is stunning.
Here is my list of seven must see works.
1. The Electricity Fairy
The Electricity Fairy is the pièce de résistance of MAM. It's a monumental work, 10 x 60 meters and the world's largest painting. Fortunately, this makes it impervious to theft. It was commissioned for the curving walls of the Pavilion de L'Electricite et de la Lumiere at the Exposition Internationale de Paris in 1937. It has 250 painted panels covering an entire room of the museum.
The painting is based on a 1st century poem by Lucretious, De Revum Nature, or On The Nature Of Things. The painting shows the history of electricity and its advances with various historical luminaries depicted. It has the characteristic Dufy clear bright colors arranged in a whimsical style.
It's simply stunning to behold, and can only really be taken in in person. Take a seat on the round black cushion, center stage, and let it wash over you. You will be immersed in Dufy's world.
2. La Dance and La danse inachevée
La Danse was originally commissioned by the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. Matisse was given free reign to create a mural for a difficult, ungrateful space consisting of three lunettes set between the top of tall windows and a gallery roof. Matisse chose one of his favorite themes, dance, as the subject of the massive mural.
Using a system of colorful cut out paper (gray, pink, blue, black), he created a pared down but flowing dynamic image of tumblers. This work, like his other cuts outs, is joyful, optimistic, and has a modern feel. One version of La Danse was installed at the Barnes Foundation. The other two are, happily, on display in the Matisse room at MAM.
3. La Ville de Paris
French artist Robert Delaunay is known as one of the founders of the Orphism Movement. This movement evolved from Cubism and Fauvism, and was concerned with re-introducing color and visual stimulation after the muted monchromatic phase of Cubism.
In this piece, Delaunay depicts the mythological Three Graces through a montage of bright prismatic color and shapes. The first panel depicts the historical city of Paris. The second panel shows classical Paris with a reference to the Judgment of Paris. The third panel, with the Eiffel Tower, depicts modern day Paris.
This work caused a sensation when it was first exhibited. The art critic Guillaume Apollinaire dubbed it an amazing example of the new movement, Orphism.
4. Femmes Aux Yeux Bleus
This painting by Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani, a particular favorite painter of mine, was almost nicked by Tomic. After his 2011 arrest, the self professed "veritable art lover" Tomic recalled: “When I went to get it off the wall, it told me, “if you take me, you will regret it for the rest of your life.” I'm so glad he listened to the voices in his head and didn't steal it.
Modigiliani is know for his affecting portraits. Though he chooses a traditional subject, it's typically modernized and stylized with a flat background and dramatically elongated faces and necks, some inspired by African masks. The dead eyed almond shaped eyes, hazy and clouded with unease, are characteristic of Modigliani's work.
The eyes suggest a melancholy stoic subject and the artist's effort to get at the fundamental essence of a person's character. Modigliaini once said, “When I know your soul, I will paint your eyes."
This particular portrait is reputed to be of his last lover, Jeanne Hebuterne, who tragically committed suicide, throwing herself and her unborn child off an apartment building, the day after Modigliani's early death at 35.
5. Portrait of Andre Breton
Although he flirted with Dadaism and Expressionism, the French-Romanian painter Victor Brauner is most commonly associated with the Surrealists. In this piece, he portrays French poet and writer Andre Breton, who is said to be the founder of Surrealism.
Here, much like another Surrealist George De Chirico, Brauner uses bold contrasting colors, severe elongated planes, and an illustrative style to capture Breton. While more representational than other Brauner works, the portrait is penetrating, dream-like, and mixes traditional realism with Surrealism.
6. Le Rêve
According to Picasso, "When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color really is." Though he disavowed Surrealism, Chagall's art reflected its focus on dream-like imagery and supernatural flights of fancy.
The image depicted here -- of an apparent rabbit with a woman on its back and upside down landscape -- is difficult to decrypt, as are many of Chagall's puzzling symbols. In dream interpretation, a rabbit is a symbol of a false friend, and the stern look on the rabbit's face may confirm this idea.
7. Evocation, The Burial of Casagemas
This painting is a key moment in the Picasso oeuvre. It is thought to mark the start of Picasso’s famous Blue Period, a period characterized by his use of the color blue and by his own depression caused by the death of his close friend, Carlos Casagemas. Picasso said “When I realized Casagemas was dead, I started to paint in blue.”
The Blue Period is also the time when Picasso’s art transitions from traditional imagery to more a more abstract style. In Evocation, he juxtaposes tradition symbols of religious art with more modern provocative images of nudes and prostitutes as Casagemas ascends to heaven. The painting explores the typical Blue Period themes of despair and lonliness.
Practical Information for Visiting Paris' Museum of Modern Art
Address: 11 avenue du Président Wilson Metro: Alma-Marceau or Iéna Tel: +33 (0)1 53 67 40 00
Opening Hours and Tickets:
Hours: Tues-Sun, 10am to 6pm, closed Mondays and French Public Holidays
Thursdays open until 10:00 pm (exhibitions only)
Tickets: Admission to the permanent collections is free of charge for all visitors. Entry prices (5 to 12€ ) vary for temporary thematic exhibits. You can buy a ticket online here.
Entry: The museum is under renovation. The entrance is on the Seine side at 12-14 avenue de new York