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Correction to This Article
The article misstated the name of a wine bar in Paris. It is Le Baron Bouge, not Le Baron Rouge.

Out-of-the-Way Sites Show Off Paris's Avant-Garde Art Scene

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By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 8, 2009

Ah, the pleasures of Paris: soupe à l'oignon in a cozy cafe; a vin de pays slid across the bar at a busy brasserie; a bistro blackboard chalked up with a prix fixe of steak-frites and creme brulee.

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Ah, the pleasures of Paris -- now available in almost any decent-size American city, often in versions more studiously authentic than the French originals.

So how about trading those well-known delights for an artists' squat in an old industrial complex in a Paris suburb? Or an unkempt venue for radical sound experiments in an alley off a Muslim shopping street? Or even an ancient museum of veterinary science, complete with flayed human cadavers? These were all part of an "alternative" Paris I discovered on a recent trip to the City of Light (another cliche that sticks, even though the French capital has long since been out-lit by any Asian metropolis), under the guidance of a couple of tuned-in locals.

First up was Jean-Philippe Antoine, a stodgy-sounding professor of aesthetics at the University of Paris but also a conceptual artist who has turned near-inaudible humming into a creative exercise and who has exhibited videos of his face being twisted into expressivity by the fingers of others. I expected Antoine to lead me to the newest, Renoir-free galleries and art centers -- and he did, sort of, eventually.

But he started out by leading me onto the Metro for a long trip out beyond the Peripherique, the famous Parisian ring road, to the southeastern suburb of Alfort. (I've learned that my kind of "hidden" Paris often requires a trek beyond the official city limits. It pretty much rules out the charms of the Left Bank.)

Once in Alfort, we headed toward a complex of charmingly shabby neoclassical buildings and stables, complete with bored-looking horses lounging in a round courtyard, and climbed some ancient stairs to take in works by Fragonard. No, not Jean-Honoré Fragonard, the great painter of ancien-regime bliss. Antoine had led me to Alfort's 250-year-old National Veterinary School (second oldest in the world) to take in the handiwork of that painter's cousin, plain old Honoré Fragonard, the school's founding director and a pioneer in the "art" of the flayed body.

Fragonard's skinned and preserved humans, with veins and nerves picked out in different colors, were on display in the newly renovated rooms of the school's tiny museum, alongside giant bovine tumors and cases full of diseased horses' hoofs. With the exception of the museum's vintage architecture and casework, now polished to a shine, none of this was what you'd call elegant. But that was just the point of the visit: to get a taste of French culture that Americans don't get at the Phillips Collection or the Barnes. This Fragonard's skill fits into a tradition of rational investigation that has deep roots in France (Pasteur, anyone? Marie Curie?) but that our romantic image of Seine-side lovers tends to slight.

Antoine led me through the museum, which was surprisingly well attended on a wet winter Sunday, to show how Parisians' sources of inspiration aren't limited to the Mona Lisa or charming views of Montmartre. They've also got access to inspirations that come out of left field, inspirations you need to move a culture forward -- into sound art, say.

That was what we got another day, when Antoine took me to Le Centquatre ("the One-O-Four," at 104 rue d'Aubervilliers), Paris's biggest new investment in contemporary creativity. To get there, Antoine took us north, past the Place Stalingrad, a sketchy square that lives up to its dark name, and along the Saint-Martin canal, whose remodeled quays are newly popular with tourists and urbane loafers. Then he had us stop to take a close look at a huge housing project called Les Orgues de Flandre ("the Flemish Organs," named for the organlike look of the complex and its location on the Avenue de Flandre).

The dozen or so buildings, both high-rise and low-, were built in the 1970s in a wild, brutalist style and are precisely what we Americans don't imagine when we think of Paris -- or at least, they're what we do our best to avoid or ignore when we get there. But Antoine and I agreed that time has been kind to this project. The architecture now seems stylish in a quaintly futuristic way, with more than a touch of "Logan's Run" about it. And for Antoine, a native Parisian, the Orgues stand for a moment when the city wasn't quite so deeply invested in its cliches. (That was the same moment that gave birth to the radical, ductwork-on-the-outside Centre Pompidou and that saw the razing of its cherished neighbor, the gorgeous 19th-century market of Les Halles.)

Finally, walking just a little farther on -- stopping just before the train tracks and engine sheds that cut through this untouristed edge of the 19th arrondissement -- we came to the Centquatre. That's where it became clear that Paris itself continues looking forward, however much we Americans prefer to view its past.

It's true that the sprawling complex, covering almost half a million square feet, does date to 1873. Until just a decade ago, it housed the city's funeral works, once home to 1,400 hearse grooms, coffinmakers, shroud-sewers and everyone else involved in burying the dead. (In typically French fashion, until very recently the government even had a monopoly on death.) But now the abandoned site has been emptied out to a loft-ish shell of masonry and skylights and poured-concrete floors, which reopened in the fall as a giant container for art and creativity.


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