Paris, you might think, is the most art-saturated city in the world. Setting up a private exhibition hall to compete with the Grand Palais, the Louvre, the Musée d'Orsay, the Centre Pompidou and the rest would be an exercise in futility: like offering Australian wines, or, worse, Burgundy, to one of the leading Bordeaux chateaux.
Think again. There is a new star rising in the Paris art world, still relatively little known to tourists but already a favourite with Parisians. The Pinacothèque, a privately run, wholly unsubsidised exhibition space has come from nowhere to lead the field in just over two years. In the last 12 months, it has outdone all other Parisian exhibition halls in the number of visitors attracted to temporary art shows.
Its last exhibition, of Dutch 17th-century masters, was seen by 700,000 people in four months, almost double the number who visited the recent headline shows at the Grand Palais and the Louvre. The Pinacothèque's latest attraction (until 18 July) is the biggest ever exhibition of Edvard Munch paintings from private collections. The show sets out to prove – triumphantly – that there is far more to the Norwegian painter than The Scream. People are already queuing around the block.
How has the fearsome, and much-feared, French state cultural bureaucracy reacted to the competition? Rather badly. The director and founder of the Pinacothèque, Marc Restellini, 45, told The Independent: "They have tried to torpedo me, to destroy me. They have acted like voyous [petty thugs]. You would think that they were rival pharmaceutical companies, with secrets to hide, and interests to protect, rather than parts of an arts world where everything is complementary and everything connects.
"When we announced the Munch exhibition, someone very senior from the Centre Pompidou rang the Munch museum in Norway and said 'Don't work with this man.' How do I know that? Because the Munch museum rang me and said: 'What's the matter with you French? Why do you behave like this?'
"Something very similar happened with the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam which agreed to loan us most of the paintings for the Dutch exhibition. Someone very senior in the Paris museums world rang them to say: 'Don't do it'."
Mr Restellini is disliked by the French state cultural establishment for several reasons. He is an art historian (and an expert on Modigliani) but he has never taken the official French examination for museum curators. He is young and brash and speaks his mind publicly in a world that prefers discreetly poisonous intrigue. And he made his name in Japan and by running a series of successful exhibitions in the (now temporarily closed) Musée du Luxembourg, which belongs to the upper house of the French parliament.
At the Pinacothèque, he has attracted a series of high-profile exhibitions – Roy Lichtenstein, Man Ray, the Chinese warriors of Xi'an, Jackson Pollock, Utrillo and Valadon – which the established museums would have liked for themselves. The Louvre, it is said, had been bidding for the Xi'an warriors for years.
He is criticised for the way he hangs his paintings; and the way he lights them. Above all, Mr Restellini has embarrassed the state culture industry with his commercial success. He charges about the same as the publicly run museums – €10 per person – and has made a profit from all but the first of his shows in 2007. If he can make a profit just from entry tickets and shop sales, why do the other exhibition spaces need large public subsidies and private sponsors?
The name Pinacothèque comes from the Greek word for a "room which contains a collection of paintings". The idea of a privately run exhibition space comes, Mr Restellini says, from successful examples in London (especially the Royal Academy) and in Italy and Germany.
The Paris Pinacothèque has taken over a previously disused building on the chic Place de la Madeleine, on the angle between the two halves of the up-market food store, Fauchon. Entering is more like arriving in a cinema lobby than a museum. There is a minimum of fuss. The exhibition is open every day of the week and until late on Wednesdays.
The interior is labyrinthine and twilit, with the pictures individually illuminated. This was Mr Restellini's controversial trademark at the Musée du Luxembourg but is, he says, increasingly regarded around the world as the right way to display art. Some visitors complain that the Pinacothèque is claustrophobic and pokey. No more so, says Mr Restellini, than the space used for rotating exhibitions at the Louvre. "If I had had the money, and if I had wanted to build a monument to myself, I could have spent hundreds of millions of euros on a building with marble and columns," Mr Restellini said. "All I actually want to do is to show paintings and help people to understand them. For those things, the building we have is fine."
One of Mr Restellini's great bugbears is the information given with the exhibitions in the publicly run exhibition spaces in Paris. It is either, he says, too skimpy, assuming that the visitor knows everything, or too intellectualised and recherché.
At the Pinacothèque, knots of people gather not just at the most beautiful paintings but at the long, but not long-winded, explanatory panels. "What people want is intelligent information on the history of the artist and the work, something not too complex, but not oversimplified," Mr Restellini said. "That's not hard to do. Or, rather, it's not easy to do but it's not impossible."
Another of Mr Restellini's pet hates is the way that paintings are hung. They are often placed too high, he says. "People say to me that, at the Pinacothèque, the paintings seem closer to the viewer. They aren't. But they are a little lower. I think art tends to be presented at the wrong angle for the viewer. It should be, as far as possible, at the angle that the painter saw when he was creating the work."
The success of the Pinacothèque can be explained in several other ways. It is new and spoiled Parisian art-lovers are always on the search for novelty. The building, although not ideal, is perfectly placed, a short walk from the big department stores, the Place de la Concorde and the Tuileries gardens.
Above all, Mr Restellini believes, he has broken down the walls which fence off different genres and periods of art in Paris (pre-19th century at the Louvre; 19th century in the Musée d'Orsay; modern art in the Pompidou, etc).
"The publicly owned exhibition spaces in Paris are firmly enclosed in their allotted periods and certainties," Mr Restellini said. "They have, poor things, to deal with all kinds of political pressures, financial pressures and a huge cultural bureaucracy. They have no interest in the transversal – in other words, in making connections outside their own domains.
"But art does not fall into neat periods. Artists don't think that way. The public doesn't think that way. Artists draw their inspiration from different periods and approaches and then make a synthesis to inspire their own work. This is what you see in the work of Edvard Munch."
But wasn't the recent, very successful 2008-09 "Picasso et ses maîtres" exhibition, which traced Picasso's influences and straddled several Paris museums, an example of breaking down barriers? "Yes," said Mr Restellini. "But it was 40 years too late. And where did the exhibition originate? From Britain."
What does Mr Restellini have up his sleeve for the second half of this year? Or for 2011? "I dare not tell you because the contracts have not been signed yet. The museums establishment tried to wreck my previous exhibitions when the contracts had been signed. You could imagine what they might try to do before they were signed..."
Pinaco-paranoia? No, more likely pinaco-prudence.
Louvre: The establishment
Previous incarnation: Royal palace
Size: 60,600 square metres
Entrance fee: €11
Visitors to last exhibition: 410,000 people saw "Rivals in Renaissance Venice"; an average of 102,500 visitors a month
What they say: "The book in which we learn to read and through which we can come to understand and love everything" – Paul Cézanne
Pinacothèque: The upstart
Previous incarnation: Disused building between two halves of upmarket food store
Size: 2,000 square metres
Entrance fee: €10 per person
Visitors to last exhibition: 700,000 people saw "The Dutch Golden Age"; an average of 175,000 visitors a month
What they say: "All I actually want to do is to show paintings and help people to understand them" – director Marc Restellini
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