We were spending a day in Paris, and everyone had their own idea of which Paris attraction they would choose for their desert island. My own choice was the Centre Pompidou, primarly because I had heard it housed the world’s largest collection of paintings by Kandinsky. My desire to visit dated back to the days when I could be single-minded enough to have a favourite anything (musician = Bill Laswell, author = M. John Harrison, artist = Wassily Kandinsky, film = Eraserhead, etc. etc.), and although my tastes now change more from day-to-day, I was still keen to see some of the great man’s work. I had only ever seen 2 or 3 Kandinskys, small ones at that, at the Tate gallery in London and the National gallery in Cardiff, and it always amazed me how pictures that appear so flat and graphical on the printed page could disguise a human 3rd dimension of brush-strokes and coloured sands applied to the canvas.
Of course the 5 or 6 Kandinskys on display did not disappoint. Neither did the other pieces – so many of them that it became impossible to concentrate on individual works, I ended up walking through rooms letting the impressions wash over me. The lower level, focussing on work from 1960 onwards, was easier in this respect as the wider range of materials and instantly-gratifying nature of many of the works meant not having to think too hard.
But I was surprised eventually at what made an impression on me. The first thing to grab my attention was the curators. I am used to English curators, usually uniformed, usually uniform – kindly grey old men or bossing matron-like women. Here the curators were a work of art. Each seemed to have been selected for individuality and visual interest. Some even complimented the art that they curated – alongside a series of photos entitled “One Minute Sculptures” (people frozen in awkward poses) sat a woman picking at her feet in a near-yogic posture.
The other memory that I took away was of the smells. At the time I was in the middle of reading Perfume, and the book’s description of it’s protagonist’s use of smells to categorize all things prompted me to pay more attention to the evidence of my nose wherever I may be. I walked into an installation – a dark room whose walls were obscured by hundreds of second-hand garments, and instantly I moved from the clean plaster-and-metal smell of the galleries to a melange of spent human odours. At the same time, the sharp clatter of hard surfaces almost disappeared as the clothing sucked in noise. Another room contained pine-wood sculptures, its walls lined with an inch-think barrier of densely-packed bay leaves, sandwiched behind a grid of chicken-wire squares. This time the smell was herbaceous – plant and pine mingling like the Swiss alpine forests of my childhood – and again the character of sound was altered, softened. Other smaller scultures floated more infinitessimal traces of themselves in the surrounding air – from brass castings, which smelt like the taste of a penny, to leather furniture, mellowed by a life under bums.