Discovered: New ad museum in Paris (in the Louvre, no less)

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Paris--In the timeless and contentious debate over whether advertising is an art or merely crass commerce, leave it to the French to have it both ways -- and gloriously so.

"Passionement Rene Gruau" ("Passionately, Rene' Gruau"), the opening exhibit of this city's new Musee de la Publicite, is an exuberant reminder, if one is needed, that the vision of a gifted designer can shape a culture's esthetic sensibility and comprehension of the surrounding world as surely as that of a great painter.

Of course, as the birthplace of deconstruction and the capital of semiotics, Paris cannot simply celebrate the art of advertising without picking a fight. Thus the institution that houses this salute to one of the discipline's greatest living artists also reaffirms at every turn that advertising, for all its occasional glories, is an uninvited assault on the senses -- "a form of interference," in the words of the Musee's founders, "on places and attitudes that are impossible to reconstitute."

Rene Gruau may be unknown by name even to advertising aficionados, but his work is embedded in our collective memory of the century just ended. His posters and magazine ads, particularly for Christian Dior perfumes and for Paris' grand show palaces, the Lido and Moulin Rouge, are an evocation of mid-century urban chic.

His bold, Japanese-inspired calligraphic lines; his black-white-red schemes; and his fascination with "le masque," eyes peeking knowingly from behind a fan , a hand or a collar -- all are as clearly a part of 20th century fashion design as the page layouts of Brodovitch or the photos of Avedon. Indeed, Gruau's art is an obvious influence on the production design of the great Audrey Hepburn-Fred Astaire movie musical fictionalized from Avedon's life, "Funny Face."

Although firmly rooted in Paris, Gruau (who was born in Rimini, Italy, in 1910 and spent a portion of his career in the U.S., working for Harper's Bazaar, Vogue and Vanity Fair) invented a type of sexy, sexual, and carefree woman who became an icon the world over. He is as deserving of cultural recognition as his lauded advertising forebear, Toulouse-Lautrec.

France has granted Gruau this honor by housing his celebratory exhibition in nothing less than the Palais du Louvre. Opened in November, the Musee de la Publicite is a successor to the Musee de l'Affiche, or Poster Museum, run for 22 years by the Union Centrale des Arts Decoratifs. In other countries, such an odd juxtaposition -- one can quite literally walk from the advertising museum to the Mona Lisa in about 10 minutes, ticket lines notwithstanding -- would likely provoke an embarrassed, this-is-the-only-place-we-could-put-it shrug. Not in France. Here, irony is part of the new museum's raison d'etre.

The Musee's interior, designed by the architect Jean Nouvel, brings forth a Paris streetscape, the ancient and the new co-existing but contradicting each other at every step. The stone and woodwork of the old palace are visible throughout; above it is the gilded molding added in the 19th century; and bolted onto it all are the metal studs and plates onto which lucite framed posters, TV sets and other detritus of modern marketing fit easily -- if uneasily. The contradictions between classic beauty and modern commerce are intentional, according to the museum's curator, Rejane Bargiel, designed to convey to visitors that in the art vs. industry debate, "the jury is still out."

At the museum's center, of course, is a cafe, with 22 TV screens hanging above the bar showing silent loops from contemporary commercials; a video poster almost hidden to one side slyly advises, "Just don't do it." Adjacent to the cafe is a remarkable multimedia library, with a dozen terminals providing interactive access (via JPEGs and MPEG2 videos) to 12,000 still images and 4,000 films from the museum's collection, searchable by product, brand, "auteur," country, date or style.

As magnificent as it is, Paris' new Musee de la Publicite is also frustrating, a reminder that in the U.S. we remain embarrassed by the applied arts and the places that house them. At the Cooper-Hewitt in New York and the Smithsonian in Washington, we keep the great parts of the advertising and design collections locked up, accessible mostly to scholars and professionals. When we unleash segments on the public, it's to give history and sociology lessons, not to revel in their beauty.

It's as if we fear that in America, a land of commerce, our better nature will be tainted by any association with the industries that sometimes produce art. Maybe, like the French, we need a thousand more years to get over that inferiority complex.

Copyright March 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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