Facing the sea, the André Malraux Museum of Modern Art (MuMa) occupies a place open to space and light. This exceptional character of the site is underlined by The Signal, a sculpture by Henri-Georges Adam, which gives a concrete frame to part of a maritime landscape which has inspired quite a lot of the artists presented in the collections of the Museum. The MuMa, inaugurated in 1961 by André Malraux himself, is well-known for its collections of end of nineteenth and twentieth century art.
History of the creation of the Museum
The City Council of Le Havre decided in 1951 to have a new building constructed. After hesitating for quite a while, as to its uses and site, the project started in 1952, thanks to the combined efforts of Georges Salles, head of the Musées de France, and Reynold Arnoult, local artist and curator of the museums of the city.
For both of them, the question was not only to recreate a museum for the collections, thus replacing a building by another, but rather to reflect deeply about the fundamental functions of a museum. They meant to break away from the traditional model and try to generate constant artistic emulation. The Museum had to be able to offer conferences, film projections, concerts hence the necessity to multiply spaces inside, some devoted to exhibiting works of art, but also workshops, store rooms, cafeteria, photograph library, record library, book library. Therefore, even before it was considered the Museum should also serve as “Maison de la Culture”, the aim was to raise interest from all sorts of audiences and contribute to their artistic education.
This ambitious pilot project for the Museum, the most modern in Europe, was put into the hands of Guy Lagneau, dissident architect of the Perret Reconstruction Studio, and his associates, Raymond Audigier, Michel Weill and jean Dimitrijevic. For this new museum, at the junction point between Boulevard Albert 1er and the southern Sea Front, the architects think up a modular space with mobile partition walls, set in harmony with its maritime environment, following principles of transparence and flexibility. The architecture of the building, real cube of glass, steel and aluminum, receiving light from all sides, roof included, means to enlarge the dialogue the works of art hold with the landscape and light which were present at their birth. Figurehead of the city, placed at the entrance of the port, it is the first museum to have been erected after the war and claimed to be a manifesto for modern and minimal architecture.
Its architecture and construction
Flexibility and transparence are the basis of this innovative project from a team of architects and engineers, all pioneers in their own fields, following closely the objectives set by Georges Salles, head of the Musées de France, and Reynold Arnoult, curator of the museums of the city.
At one end of a housing block typical of the reconstruction enacted in le Havre, the museum claims a break on two counts, one from the style of the reconstruction of the city as organized by Auguste Perret, but also and above all, a second one from the traditional aesthetics of this type of institution.
In December 1953, a model of the future museum was shown in Paris, at the National Museum of Modern Art, during the exhibition “De Corot à nos jours at the Museum of Le Havre” (“From Corot to present time at the Museum of Le Havre”). Actual construction however will only start at the end of 1958. In the meantime, the concept behind the museum has improved and, when André Malraux, French Minister of Culture, solemnly inaugurates the building on 24th June 1961, it has become Musée-Maison de la Culture.
The architecture of the museum from the start shows off the modernity of its programme as Museum cum Maison de la Culture. Inside the building, modernity generates avant-garde museographic solutions which radically alter the vision one may have of the collections. It allows flexibility of spaces, making it simpler to meet, in a smooth and efficient way, the demands of programming exhibitions, but also concerts, conferences and shows.
The Signal, monumental sculpture the French State ordered from Henri-Georges Adam to sit on the esplanade of the Museum- Maison de la Culture, properly belongs to the museum, being an integral part of its identity.
22 metres long, 7 metres high and weighing over 220 tonnes, the sculpture isolates a part of the landscape, frames it with concrete, and underlines the exceptional site the building occupies at the entrance of the harbour. Its implementation created a technical challenge for, although hollow and of great span, the monument sits on a base hardly a quarter of its length.
Its name, The Signal, which makes the meaning of the work explicit, was not apparently given it by the artist. The name appears in the press from 1959 onwards, and it appears on the National List of contemporary Art under that name. But, as far as the people of Le Havre are concerned, the name never really stuck, and the terms “the eye” or “the shuttle” are usually spontaneously used.
For the fifty years it spent without any protection from the prevailing winds, it was hit head-on by bad weather, a major cause of erosion. Getting restored, as part of the celebration programme of the museum’s fiftieth anniversary, returned it to its original state, at the same time enhancing the symbolic value of the dialogue it creates between the museum, the port and the sea. Restoration started in 2011, thanks to the support given by many sponsors and the DRAC (Direction Régionale des Affaires Culturelles).