Pop Culture Mama: Carambolages Exhibit Shakes Up Art History

Pop Culture Mama: Carambolages Exhibit Shakes Up Art History

Grand Palais National Galleries, March 2 - July 4, 2016

Carambolages exhibit
Anonymous Flemish, part of a satirical diptyque (1520-1530), oil on wood; 58,8 x 44,2 x 6 cm © University of Liège Art Collection

In French, the word “carambolages” means a pile-up – a series of cars plowing into one another in a chain reaction. Another way to think of it might be a series of dominoes knocking into one another to create some larger fantastical design. It is this image that came to mind as the family and I visited “Carambolages”, the imaginative and playful new exhibit at the Grand Palais, now on through July 4, 2016.

The brainchild of curator Jean-Hubert MartinCarambolages shakes up museum conventions by organizing an exhibit of works not around an artist, a medium, a theme, a chronology or even a country of origin – but all of them mixed up together. Luckily, this doesn’t mean a mishmash without any overall principle. The show has been very carefully thought through, laid out in one continuous sequence, taking the viewer on a journey from one work to another, each connected to the next in some way.

Carambola exhibit
17th century reliquary casket, Aargau, Switzerland © MuCEM, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Yves Inchierman

Gone are detailed explanations and dry quotes from critics written on the walls. The multi-media works (paintings, sculptures, masks, video) are arranged in a series of numbered rows – without the artist’s name, the date or any other identifying information. As a result, the entire experience becomes a game, one particularly suited to younger museum-goers. As you wander past the artwork, can you figure out which element links the works together? Which work came first? Are the similarities a deliberate reference by the artist or a coincidence? While some progressions are fairly evident (a mummified cat might lead to a still-life with a cat and fish, which might lead to a bronze helmet with fish-like details) others are much more obscure.

Carambolage exhibit
Hyacinthe Rigaud, Study of Hands (1715-1723) © Musée Fabre de Montpellier Méditerranée Métropole

At the end of each row a video screen identifies the works (although not the idea that connects them) and I was constantly shocked to see how old some of the most contemporary-looking works were. I was also much worse at trying to identify the linking principal between works than my 11-year-old son, who was constantly pointing out visual elements I’d missed. Although there are many famous artists in the exhibit, most of the works are atypical and not particularly well-known, and include some real revelations, such as the unattributed Une vision de la Sainte Famille près de Vérone.” Dating from the 16th century, this Italian trompe l’oeil painting depicts a painting unrolling to reveal an almost identical painting underneath. What the artist was trying to do here is anyone’s guess, and that’s the whole point. Viewers, especially children, are free to make their own interpretations and associations. There are no wrong answers!

Carambola exhibit
Anonymous Flemish, part of a satirical diptyque (1520-1530), University of Liège Art Collections (galerie Wittert)

For those of you with younger children, there are a few risqué works on the upper floor, but are easily avoidable. The exhibit also has a workbook for children and a downloadable app which provides accompanying music to go with the art. I would have appreciated a bit more explanation of the idea behind the exhibit at the start (I only knew about it because a friend had already been), but this is a minor quibble. Thought-provoking and innovative, “Carambolages” is sure to stimulate the imaginations of the whole family.

“It’s so much more interesting than a regular museum,” my 14-year-old daughter said. “Why aren’t all exhibits done this way?”

Here’s hoping that we’ll see many more artistic pile-ups at the Grand Palais in the future.

Carambolages (March 2 – July 4, 2016)
Grand Palais
National Galleries
3, avenue du Général Eisenhower 75008 Paris

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