BEFORE closing for renovations in 1986, the Jeu de Paume in the Tuileries Gardens was the sweetest museum in Paris. It was delightfully intimate after the Louvre. Overlooking the Place de la Concorde, it contained a celebrated Impressionist collection that could be seen in an hour, even if it took that long to get through summer lines.Back then at the Jeu de Paume, you walked directly to the Toulouse-Lautrecs, Degas dancers, Boudins, Van Goghs, and Monets that hung along the length of the two erstwhile courts. The suite culminated in Manet's "Olympia" and jeuner sur l'Herbe," scenes so familiar from art history courses that it seemed a disservice not to swing by. But the Jeu de Paume reopened in June as a radically changed place. And it would still be a bad thing to overlook it. With the Impressionist pictures having been dispatched to the Musee d'Orsay, the new Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume has honed its focus as a contemporary art exhibition hall.
New from inside out From the outside, the place looks much as before. On the west facade, the four fluted columns and classical pediment containing the arms of Napoleon III are preserved. Along both sides the lines of the arcades remain. But inside, the museum has been gutted and redeveloped by French architect Antoine Stinco. It even contains a cafe and bookshop, the trend everywhere these days. Glass now fills the entire arched entry, allowing sunlight to pour into the new reception area where an angled staircase soon leads up to second-floor galleries and down to a below-ground auditorium, another new feature. The building's sides have been opened and glassed about so you view a staggered swath of stairs through the arcade from the garden. From a belvedere, you see not only the Tuileries, but the obelisk in La Place de la Concorde, the Eiffel Tower, and the Grand Palais. This renovation makes the most of a spectacular Parisian setting. The long, tall, narrow Jeu de Paume has a more open look and feel. It also seems wider. The galleries, artificially lit on the first floor and skylit on the second, are focused spaces for art in which a few small windows relieve the large enclosures without distracting the viewer. The Jeu de Paume was erected in 1861 by court tennis buffs, the Cercle de la Paume. According to the newly published Jeu de Paume history, "courte paume," or short palm (hence the term tennis court) was early played by monks in medieval monasteries, and then by king and commoner alike. Louis XIV had such a court built at Versailles, and it was there - not at the Jeu de Paume - that the Oath of the Tennis Court took place, helping to catapult the French Revolution. The game, a precursor to lawn tennis, is still enjoyed in some exclusive clubs, but it had become outmoded by the turn of the century with the advent of modern tennis. This is why, by 1909, the Jeu de Paume had become an exhibition hall.
History of uses If radically reconceiving a building that had become one of Paris's most loved museums seems a sacrilege, it's worth noting that the Jeu de Paume has seen many uses and changes. In 1879 its size was doubled when a second court was added, and the insides were gutted and reinstalled by 1932 when it reopened to show contemporary art from outside France. At that time, the exhibition space was also doubled with the installation of a second floor across the middle. During World War II, the Nazis set the Jeu de Paume to odious ends, storing art confiscated from Jews there before shipping the works to Germany. It wasn't until 1947 that it became an adored museum of Impressionism. A number of major interior renovations were concluded in the late 1950s. "Jean Dubuffet: The Last Years" was perhaps a sure bet with which to inaugurate the latest incarnation of the Jeu de Paume, given the artist's stature in postwar French art. Many of the 200-plus paintings and drawings, filling the galleries on both floors and surveying the last 10 years of Dubuffet's life (1901-1985), haven't been widely seen before. The Jeu de Paume plans to try to develop an audience for temporary rotating shows, including upcoming films by the late Samuel Beckett, recent video, sculptures by New York artist Robert Gober, and works from Ellsworth Kelly's Paris years. It will have no permanent collection. In the work currently on view, Dubuffet, who invented the term Art Brut (art by nonprofessional artists, particularly children and others in whom artistic expression appears in a "raw" or unadulterated form), wound up producing Fauve mindscapes, crudely elegant drawing that sometimes suggests comic book narrative. His frenetic, obsessive scribbles of crowded faces and animated figures look cinematic, and the frequently remarkable color in his paintings, strangely tasteful and very French. The rich hues of his turn-of-the-century Fauve forebears, which were once seen as brash, look more and more pleasing over time. The same could be said of Dubuffet.
The show "Jean Dubuffet: The Last Years" runs through Sept. 22.