The Bad Art of Paris

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Paris is a museum city, and like many museums it has a lot of bad art.

Not just in the Louvre or the Musée d’Orsay or even the overpriced galleries, but on the street.

In fact, the very worst might be at the Sunday art fair along Boulevard Edgar Quinet, in the shadow of Tour Montparnasse, which serves as the ugly watchtower for the ugly art for sale in the dozens of booths that still draw crowds of tourists looking to pick up that special something with which to amaze (and appall) the neighbors when it’s mounted over the mantelpiece back home. It’s known as Le Marché Parisien de la Création, and it’s really worth seeing.

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Now, every city has its share of tacky galleries selling wan abstractions and jejune impressionist paintings. And visitors abroad buying bad art is nothing new. An acquaintance of mine in Paris remembers when her parents, back in the 1960s, brought home from Montmartre a hideous landscape that they proudly hung with touristic pride over the fireplace, an original painting to disgrace the living room.

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But the booths showing garish Eiffel Tower fantasias, clowns – sad or otherwise – and naked Nubian princesses with fluffy black-cotton hair glued onto the canvas (created by someone who looked like she’d rarely seen the light of day) was like being served cold beans on toast after a month of fresh croissants.

Sure, everyone’s a critic. And in Paris, everyone’s an artist.

In the first months of my stay in Paris, I wandered through the Sunday art fair a few times (Saturdays there’s also an excellent greenmarket there). There was always a crowd of tourists negotiating to buy a clown or princess or Eiffel Tower. Taste is personal, and really, who am I to say that what I consider terrible art isn’t actually a work of misunderstood genius?

You can buy some passable paintings at some of the many brocantes, or antiques fairs around the city – perhaps a decent still life, or a country scene by some unknown old master. My friend Raoul, who’s studying to become an art restorer after a career in the oil industry, frequents Drouot, the famous auction house, for estate sales where descendants dump a lot of tired old paintings that can be actually quite good once they’ve been resuscitated and retouched.

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And from time to time you come across a “vide grenier” (empty attic), a kind of garage sale for a neighborhood. Lots of junk is laid out on blankets on the sidewalks and alongside the chipped mugs and VHS tapes and old issues of Paris Match you’ll see sad clowns bought by an earlier generation of Parisians who’d made regretful decisions. But you might also even find a decent watercolor.

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If you were to succumb to the bliss of being in Paris and actually buy a work at the Sunday art fair on Edgar Quinet, back home once the jet lag has worn off, you might actually find a taker for your mistake at your own garage sale. You could say “caveat emptor,” but people who purchase this kind of stuff aren’t in it for the resale value or the investment itself: it’s a memory of a time spent strolling dreamily in a wonderful city. The art may be atrocious, but if it reminds you of a cozy bistro where you dined in Montparnasse, well, whatever helps you recall a happier time. I hope the food was at least better than the painting that marked the occasion.

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This isn’t to say that the vendors try to pull the wool over your eyes (the Sunday art fair is still going strong). These are serious artists, dedicated to their creations. I once made the mistake of snapping a few photographs of the specimens on display – strangely enough, I wanted to try to remember what I’d seen – but was met with shouts of anger for daring to take a picture without requesting first. I apologized, but didn’t erase the shots I’d had. Still, when I did ask the artisan who created the strangely coiffed Nubian princesses if I could photograph her works, she declined. “You understand,” she said, nodding her head at them. Meaning, I think, that she didn’t want just anyone copying her style.

She needn’t have worried: it was as identifiable as a Picasso and as hard to replicate.

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