Our Man In Paris: The secret gallery

John Lichfield
Monday 09 December 2002 01:00

One of the most popular museums in the world has a room stuffed with great paintings that visitors seldom see. It is a secret gallery, except for those who have stumbled upon the secret. The small room is poorly signposted, and hidden in an awkward corner of the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. It contains 20 Impressionist, post-Impressionist and Fauvist paintings by artists ranging from Van Gogh to Monet, from Cézanne to Seurat, from Pissarro to Derain.

In any other city, in any other gallery, the room would be swarming with visitors. Not here. Paris has a surfeit of publicly owned art (vast sections of the Louvre and Beaubourg collections are never shown). The Musée d'Orsay has the world's most extraordinary collection of Impressionist paintings on its celebrated and permanently besieged top floor.

Our room – we have come to think of it as our room – is on the floor below. It goes unnoticed and unloved. The hidden gallery was discovered accidentally by my wife a few months ago. She wandered down the back stairs at the museum, along a narrow corridor, around two corners, and found herself all alone with a Monet, two Bonnards, two Cézannes, two Renoirs, a Gauguin, two Vlamincks, a Seurat, a Van Gogh, etc, etc.

I spent over an hour in there with two of my children the other day. (What else can you do in Paris with children on a rainy day?) In that time, only four other people came into the room. The expression on their faces said either, "Oh, no, not more Impressionists", or, "This isn't the loo", and they walked out again.

Clare, aged eight, likes to "copy" paintings with felt tip-pens. A Van Gogh took her two minutes; a Monet a little longer. ("They did it better," she admitted.) Grace, aged five, lay flat on the floor for 30 minutes, with her colour pens spread around her, doing a freelance version of a beautiful Renoir painting of a vase of gladioli. The custodian did not bother either of them. Why should he? They weren't in anyone's way.

The room is on the middle floor of the building, in the south-west corner; follow the confusing signs, if you can. It is called the "Collection Max et Rosy Kaganovitch". Officials at the Musée d'Orsay admit that the collection is obscurely placed, easy to miss, and poorly displayed. Whose fault is that? Mostly, they say, it is Max Kaganovitch's fault.

There is nothing in the room to tell you who Max and Rosy Kaganovitch were (a strange omission). The museum did, however, let me ferret through its archives in order to find out. Max Kaganovitch was a Russian-Jewish sculptor and art dealer, who gave the French state his collection of paintings in 1973, five years before he died at the age of 86. He emigrated to France in 1924, intending to become a great artist, but became, almost by accident, an art dealer and gallery-owner instead.

He arrived in Paris penniless but realised that he could make money by buying paintings from one gallery and selling them to another one. In the late 1920s and 1930s, it was possible to buy Impressionists and Fauvists for next to nothing. Kaganovitch bought his Derain – a beautiful painting of "Charing Cross bridge" – for Fr1,000 in 1930. This would be the equivalent today of £250.

After being stripped of his French citizenship by the anti-Semitic Vichy regime in 1942, Kaganovitch and his wife, Rosy, and their two daughters fled to Switzerland. He returned to France in 1945 and fought a long legal battle to reclaim his gallery on the boulevard Raspail from the Vichy sympathiser who had appropriated it.

Rosy, a Swiss student when he met her in 1927, died in 1960. After retiring and returning to sculpting in 1968, Max gave his collection to the French state. He insisted, however, that the paintings should be kept together in one room; that the room should be named after Rosy and himself (what did his second wife think of that, one wonders?); and that the collection should be treated as an annexe to the national treasury of Impressionist paintings, which were moved into the Musée d'Orsay when it opened in 1986.

Museum officials say that the terms of Max's bequest make it difficult to give the paintings the prominent display that they merit. Many a city in France, or the world, would love and cherish such a collection. Max's bequest insists that they remain in Paris (apart from occasional trips on loan).

If you are tired of the usual trail around the Paris art galleries, we are happy to share our room on the back-stairs of the Musée d'Orsay. Children and felt-tips welcome.

Who's the king of the castle?

I deserve the Légion d'Honneur. For the sixth year in succession, I have helped to run the bouncy castle at the school fete.

Foreigners often have the wrong idea about French children. They see them sitting silently in restaurants through 17 courses of Sunday lunch in bow-ties or silk dresses, each hair glued in place. This is a sham – or a brilliantly rehearsed act.

Remove them from the immediate forcefield of their parents' or teachers' presence and French children explode like corks from shaken champagne bottles. A Parisian playground is a combat zone from which only the most brazen, self-assertive individuals (ie Parisians) emerge alive.

My children's school is in one of the quietest, most Catholic-conservative areas of Paris but, every year, the school's winter fete is a running battle in which the children try to cover each other from head to foot with fake, multicoloured snow, sprayed from "bombes" (aerosols). Where do the children get their bombs? They are sold to them by the organisers of the fete, who then complain about the mess they cause.

The structure at the school fete is the bouncy castle from hell: an immense, double corridor in which two children at a time are strapped to ropes on springs and compete to see how far they can pull.

They also compete to push each other out of the queue; to avoid paying; to sway like drunks to destablise the structure; and to sneak around the back to pull on the ropes to mess up their friends' turns.

In the space of nearly three hours, I carefully strapped in and unstrapped over 100 jostling children, aged from eight to 13. Only two or three of them uttered the M-word: "Merci".

Détente?

Peace may be be about to break out in the cultural war between France and America. The Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, which is dedicated to 20th- and 21st-century civilisation, is considering a retrospective exhibition on the impact of that Great American Artist, Walt Disney.

It may also soon be time for the extremely successful McDonalds on the Champs Elysées to be awarded a star in the Michelin Guide.