The Jeu de Paume museum will reopen in June as a new state-run exhibition space devoted entirely to contemporary art.
Overlooking the Place de la Concorde, the Jeu de Paume was one of the city's most popular tourist attractions until it closed in August 1986 to allow its crowded collection of Impressionist masterpieces to be shipped across the Seine for display in the grander setting of the Orsay Museum on the Left Bank.The reasons for the move were both national prestige - the huge Orsay museum, built in a former railway station, is devoted entirely to 19th-century art - and safety. So many people came to view the Impressionists at the Jeu de Paume that the paintings were often almost hidden from view, and curators worried that such crowded and stuffy conditions could cause long-term damage to the canvasses.
French Culture Minister Jack Lang intends the Jeu de Paume to be a popular showpiece for contemporary art, a field he is anxious to promote in order to put France on an equal footing with other European countries. He said recently that Paris was falling behind and needed to have its own equivalent of London's Whitechapel Art Gallery or the Kunsthalle of major German towns to exhibit contemporary painting and sculpture.
The first major exhibition, which will open on June 20, is a retrospective of late works by French artist Jean Dubuffet, who died in 1985 at the age of 84. Ironically, Dubuffet hated museums.
The actual building was constructed in the middle of the 19th century during the reign of Napoleon III to house courts for games of jeu de paume, a French form of indoor tennis. The game fell out of fashion at the end of the century, and the courts were first used as an art gallery in 1909.
Rebuilding work was carried out after World War I, and the Jeu de Paume became a full-fledged museum housing its own permanent collections in 1922. It later started acquiring major modern paintings and in 1938 housed its first major exhibition entitled "Three centuries of art in the U.S.A.," organized in collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Requisitioned by the Germans during World War II, the Jeu de Paume was used as a warehouse for artworks confiscated from Jewish collections before they were shipped off to Germany. In 1947 the building was used for the first time to exhibit major Impressionist paintings.
The French government is also to tackle the drab state of the 75-acre Tuileries gardens in which the Jeu de Paume stands. Three leading landscape gardeners have been chosen to draw up an extensive restoration project which will be presented to Mitterrand next month.
Work on sprucing up the gardens, their 2,600 trees, gravel alleys, lawns and terraces is scheduled to start this summer and be complete by 1995.