Jean-Michel Othoniel Turns the Petit Palais into a Palace of Wonders
The celebrated sculptor’s enchanting Paris show, ‘The Narcissus Theorem,’ features more than 70 new artworks
The Petit Palais is one of the great architectural treasures of Paris. Designed by Charles Girault for the 1900 Universal Exhibition, the Beaux-Arts beauty now houses the City of Paris Museum of Fine Arts, which has been opening its doors to such contemporary artists as Kehinde Wiley, Andres Serrano, and Zhang Huan since 2013.
Although its galleries are already home to masterpieces by Courbet, Delacroix, and Ingres, the palace is now hosting a new exhibition that turns it into a realm of pure enchantment. Dubbed “The Narcissus Theorem,” the show by Paris-based sculptor Jean-Michel Othoniel transforms the landmark through at least through January 2, 2022.
Conceived around the Greek myth of the man-flower Narcissus, who by reflecting himself reflects the world around him, the sprawling exhibition features more than 70 new artworks, with many of them created during the pandemic lockdown and now being seen for the very first time. The viewer senses that the show is going to be full of wonders from the moment they approach the grand entrance of the building, where the ascending staircase is embraced by a thousand blown-glass bricks, which flow down the steps like a river rushing to the sea.
The highly decorative, historical courtyard displays a collection of Othoniel’s signature Necklaces and Wild Knots, giant beaded sculptures made with mirror-polished stainless steel, while the palace’s lush garden and its ponds sparkle with the artist’s abstract Lotus sculptures, whose reflective golden surfaces mirror the symbolic gilded angels standing high atop the structure’s central dome.
Descending into the bowels of the building, a vast exhibition space features Othoniel’s silver brick sculpture Agora, a beehive structure with a cavernous interior, where one can sit alone or in the company of others. Surrounding Agora, the artist’s Precious Stonewall pieces, made from an accumulation of beautifully pigmented glass bricks, glow vibrantly as the lights from above lick their surfaces and cast blazing reflections on the white walls that hold them.
Diving deeper into the darkened domain of the next gallery, a pool-like display of blue glass bricks sets the stage for a sensational underground theater of beaded knots, which are bursting in color. Strung together from exquisite mirrored-glass balls that are hand-blown to Othoniel’s specifications by artisans in Basel and Murano, the sculptures are suspended above the watery plane like choreographed dancers delicately caught in mid-air.
In the next room, the dazzling sculptures gracefully pose on pedestals in the company of the artist’s heavenly ink on white gold leaf paintings from his recent series La Rose du Louvre, which the Louvre commissioned to celebrate the 30th anniversary of I.M. Pei’s Pyramid. The final gallery of the underground section features a petit purple glass beadwork, from his chrysanthemum-inspired Kiku series, in an ornate 19th-century display cabinet from the museum’s extensive collection of objects, but there’s still one last treasure to behold.
Climbing the stairs to the upper floor, the viewer comes upon a gem from the artist’s personal archive, which has now been acquired for the Petit Palais’s public collection. Suspended from the cupola above a spiral staircase, the Othoniel’s ornate Crown of the Night chandelier shines in the splendor of its setting. A giant bejeweled glass crown, it has a direct relationship to the artist’s first public artwork, The Kiosk of the Nightwalkers, which still enriches the entrance of a Paris metro station more than 20 years after its installation.
Envisioning a space for people to share his richly imaginative art while savoring the city’s precious architectural past, Othoniel invites us into a site of contemplation—a sublime space that allows us the chance to experience the joie de vivre, which this seasoned artist is continuously conveying, reflected in his marvelously mesmerizing work.
“The Narcissus Theorem” is on view at the Petit Palais through January 2, 2022.