Descend to the lower level of the Fondation Louis Vuitton - the bowels of Frank Gehry's anchored ship with its soaring glass sails - and straight ahead in the first gallery of six, you will find 'The Scream'. On loan from the Munch Museum in Oslo, it has been mounted into dark paneling that runs the expanse of the wall and, for obvious reasons, hangs behind a pane of glass.
But that protective barrier unintentionally unlocks the secret to Keys to a Passion, the third stage of the Fondation Louis Vuitton's inaugural programming and first 'historic' exhibition since opening in October. Stare into the reflection and you see Edvard Munch's iconic expression of 20th century angst responding to the other major works occupying the room. Is it aghast at Kazimir Malevich's 'Bust with a Yellow Shirt', or Alberto Giacometti's attenuated 'Walking Man I' in bronze? Maybe that swirling malaise is a reaction to the disquieting duo of male studies, both from Francis Bacon; or the vampish allure of Anita Berber, the dancer rendered in red by Otto Dix in 1925.
Each of these works alone is an aesthetic exercise in psychoanalysis; as a group statement, combined with four self-portraits from lesser-known Finnish painter Helene Schjerfbeck, they all but drown the room in beautiful dread. It's not by accident that the second gallery presents two of Claude Monet's large 'Nymphéas' ('Water Lilies') along with three comparatively smaller - but equally calming - landscapes from Piet Mondrian, painted decades before the more recognisable 'Lozenges' in the following room. By the time you reach the final gallery and are confronted with Henri Matisse's 'Dance' from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, it's as if you've just cartwheeled through a cross-section of modern art's greatest hits.
Indeed, the fluctuating emotional registers from room to room offer an indication of the massive effort required pull off such an ambitious show; the 60 works from 22 artists originated from 40 galleries and private collectors. Negotiations for 'The Scream' and 'Dance' began nearly two years ago. And while provoking dialogue between works is among the motivations of any group show, seldom does a showing represent such widely recognised icons from so vast an array of institutions. To face three dynamic paintings from Fernand Léger is to witness a family reunion of sorts.
'Everything co-exists,' co-curator Suzanne Pagé told Wallpaper*, adding that 'the well-considered "mise-en-regard" deliberately positions pieces so that each can be experienced individually among the collective arrangement.'
The goal, added Pagé, was to keep the quantity of works low but the quality exceptionally high, all while ensuring the pieces best represented the four devised 'sequences' rather than standard isms or linear chronologies. Seemingly arbitrary, the themes - subjective expressionism, contemplative, popist and music - actually align with the Fondation's mission as a multi-dimensional cultural destination.
And as noted by Jean-Paul Claverie, advisor to Bernard Arnault and deputy director for the Fondation, an appreciation of today's contemporary art cannot exist without acknowledging the seismic shifts shaping recent art history.
Or, as Mr. Arnault expresses in the exhibition's catalogue, 'in the ever-changing realm of creativity, isn't looking at the past the most convincing way to welcome the most innovative new ideas?'
Obviously, the privately held Fondation has benefited from such significant loans thanks to Mr. Arnault and LVMH's ongoing support of arts institutions around the world. Since October, 500,000 people have already visited the building on the periphery of central Paris. Beyond assuring attendance, the show proves the power of a private museum today - and will address this issue head-on during a two-day conference June 12-13. In the meantime, for those who will never have the opportunity to visit the Bacon in Melbourne or Rothko's 'No. 46 (Black, Ochre, Red over Red)' in Los Angeles, Keys to a Passion brings pivotal works under one voluminous roof. You will likely never see them together like this again.