With its ornate sculptures and murals, Paris’s Panthéon – designed by Jacques-Germain Soufflot in the mid-18th century as a church dedicated to Sainte-Geneviève, and later housing the tombs of such French luminaries as Voltaire and Victor Hugo – stands as the apotheosis of neoclassical grandeur. From June until early October, though, its dramatic grand nave and the base of its famous dome (now under renovation) swarmed with the faces of ordinary, anonymous citizens, in all of their 21st‑century diversity.
Historical attractions are just the sort of spots where you will typically catch tourists snapping photos of themselves, but here enigmatic French street artist JR rendered the selfie monumental. Deployed as a way to democratize an otherwise stolid, elitist urban landscape, Au Panthéon launched as a road trip.
Known for his “uninvited” exhibitions of massive portraits pasted on buildings and bridges, JR sent his Inside Out photo booth – a goofy, camera-shaped truck – to tour nine of the country’s most venerable sites. Travelling to the city of Carcassonne and the medieval Basilica of Saint Denis, it captured images of thousands of participants, who were urged to “make a strong face.” Enlarged and printed on durable canvas, their subjects’ ethnicities all over the global map, the shots range from a young woman with her mouth twisted into a nutty grimace; to a beaming, angelic child; to an older man with a thick moustache gazing sternly.
The collective expression exhibits a kind of joyful populist insurrection, but the faces themselves, crowded together, flowing, convey a warm, intimate humanity that contrasts starkly with all of that perfect symmetry and white stone. Au Panthéon is, however, anything but iconoclastic; rather, it is humanizing.