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A new look for a 19th-century museum in Nantes

26 June 2017

No Beaux-Arts building would be complete without a spectacular staircase and the 19th-century Palais of the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nantes – which reopened last month as the Musée d’arts de Nantes – is no exception. Two vast flights of stone-paved stairs, flanked by a pair of monumental friezes, ascend in opposite directions. These double stairs act as the access point for the museum’s upper galleries and as a clear statement of allegiance to the Beaux-Arts school; the design for the building, by Nantes-born architect Clément-Marie Josso, was in part inspired by the Beaux-Arts museum in Lille.

Musée d'arts de Nantes, photo: © Stefano Graziani

Musée d’arts de Nantes. photo © Stefano Graziani

The Palais opened in 1900, nearly a century after the museum’s foundation by the Decree Chaptal, a consular decree issued in 1801 allocating works belonging to the French Republic to 15 provincial cities, including Nantes. An ambitious acquisitions policy meant that the museum’s collection quickly expanded beyond the capacity of its first public home on the upper floor of the city’s textiles market hall and so, in 1893, after an open competition (won by Josso), the new Palais was built. A century later, the museum’s collection again outgrew its home, which now included the 17th-century Chapelle de l’Oratoire, restored and entrusted to the museum in 1988. In 2009, a design competition was launched, this time for a renovation and expansion project, which was awarded to London-based practice Stanton Williams.

This June the renamed museum reopened after six years of being closed. (In 2012 the project, originally slated for completion in 2013, was severely set back by the discovery of underground water veins.) The Palais and chapel have been refurbished and rehung; scores of works have been restored; a new archive building and subterranean auditorium have been added and the public street leading to the museum has been redesigned.

The centrepiece of the expansion is the Cube: a monolith that is made up of 2,000 sq m of gallery space on four levels, and connected to the Palais by a suspended bridge. Within the Cube, visitors move between levels via a series of stairways and bridges set against a wall of translucent marble sheets – the south façade of the building. Nantes is not known for its clement weather, but on my visit in April the sky was clear and blue. Light filtered through the thin marble sheets, capturing their delicate veins and variation in shades: a beautiful, decidedly contemporary counterpoint to the theatrical flourish of the double stairs in the old Palais.

While no new building exists in complete isolation, expansions of historic sites set a particular challenge for architects. On this occasion the task has been met with remarkable success, thanks to an approach that acknowledges difference while bridging the gap between past and present with a clever combination of contrasts and echoes.

A similar challenge is presented by the museum’s ever-growing collection of artworks. Thanks to the Decree Chaptal and other early acquisitions, its pre-modern holdings are rich in European Old Masters, with highlights that include Orazio Gentileschi’s recently restored Diane Chasseresse. Since its creation, however, the museum’s acquisitions policy has focused on collecting works by living artists – as demonstrated by the then-scandalous purchase in 1861 of Gustave Courbet’s depiction of working peasants, The Wheat Sifters (1854). Today, approximately half of the collection is made up of post-1900 works across various media and from around the world.

The patio of the Musée d'arts de Nantes, photo: Stefano Graziani

The skylit-patio of the Musée d’arts de Nantes. Photo: © Stefano Graziani

For the museum’s reopening, the curators and architects have worked together to develop a new hang that, for the most part, takes a chronological course. The enfilades of the Palais carry us through from the 13th century to the early 1900s, leading into the Cube, where the last half-century of art is (following Tate Modern’s prominent example) split across four thematic galleries exploring painting, time and memory, geography and the body. The transition is seamless, owing to the shrewd placement of the contemporary painting gallery on the same level as the Palais’s final gallery of early 20th-century abstraction.

On other occasions, the linearity of history is interrupted. During my visit, the impressive sky-lit patio of the Palais was filled with workers installing 350 kilometres of transparent silicon thread for a new work by contemporary Austrian artist Susanna Fritscher. Meanwhile in the permanent collection, Grand tableau antifasciste collectif (1960), a collective painting protesting against the Algerian war, punctuates a gallery of 19th-century history paintings; and on either side of Ingres’s Madame de Senonnes (1814) hang James Tissot’s 1899 copy and a bold 21st-century appropriation by Sigmar Polke. These are echoes and counterpoints that, like the building, express a harmonious marriage of old and new.

From the July/August 2017 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.