Rip it up and start again

Visual art - The Pompidou Centre has rehung its modern masterpieces in a thematic style. Richard Cor

Until now, the collections in France's finest museum of modern art have been displayed in chronological order. When Tate Modern opened and adopted a thematic selec- tion, some horrified visitors compared it unfavourably with the Pompidou's more traditional approach. But now the old, reassuring presentation of a steady journey, decade by decade, has been jettisoned. And Paris goes much further than the Tate, plumping for a frankly turbulent emphasis on modernism at its most unnerving.

At the Tate, the displays centre on themes as sober as "Still Life", "Figure" and "Landscape". At the Pompidou, however, the very centre of our era's darkness is penetrated. After kicking off with "Destruction", its all-female team of curators has no hesitation in explor- ing "Sex", "War", "Subversion" and "Melancholy". Over lunch, Camille Morineau, responsible for the section on "Sex", tells me quite categorically that "it's time to reconsider the 20th century as a whole". Seconds after she utters these sweeping words, a violent crash of crockery in the restaurant reinforces her rebellious impatience. Morineau believes that "Big Bang" lives up to its name by "creating a revolution inside the Pompidou. Some people in the museum were very sceptical about the thematic approach, but then artists came in to see their work in the rehang and they loved it. Now the collection is living again."

There is also a far greater interplay between disciplines. Painting and sculpture are still given prominence, but they find themselves juxtaposed at every turn with architecture, cinema, photography, video, design and even literature. As if to underscore this innovative zeal, the curators have ensured that contempo-rary art enjoys far greater space than at previous Pompidou displays. Newcomers are often hung near the most revered modernist masters, prompting us to find unpredictable links.

In the first room, devoted to "Destruction", a tall canvas shows figures falling through the night sky like phantoms on fire. Painted two years ago by the young German artist Daniel Richter, this wildly handled vision seems to emanate from a nightmare. The work hangs near Clamdigger by Willem de Kooning, and a triptych by Francis Bacon where three figures twist, bend and blur in otherwise empty interiors. Thomas Schutte's gleaming metallic colossus rears up in front of us, its head grotesquely contorted under the impact of some devastating mental distress.

The further we explore, the more uninhibited "Big Bang" becomes. Nor does the visceral intensity let up. Jackson Pollock's Number 26A, Black and White is hung in a subsection called "Chaos". This wilful shattering of the picture surface, and determination to disorientate the viewer with eruptive energy, is displayed near a model of Coop Himmelblau's 1983 apartment complex in Vienna. The entire structure defies all geometrical order by splintering and thrusting into space. An outspoken commentary stresses the trauma by explaining that Coop Himmelblau's architecture "bleeds, becomes exhausted, distorts itself and why not, finally breaks".

We are a long way, here, from the studied neutrality of the conventional museum caption. Catherine Grenier, head curator of "Big Bang", is clearly unafraid of disturbing the Pompidou's audience. The leaflet accompanying "Big Bang" declares that "by demanding radical liberation and shattering established values, modern art produced a kind of creative destructiveness". Grenier makes sure that the spirit of militant emancipation never flags. While Alberto Burri sets fire to plastic surfaces and revels in the outcome of burning, Niki de Saint Phalle aims her rifle at bags of colour - and shoots. Her canvas is hit by flying pigment. Arman goes still further by wrecking an entire piano as he pays clangorous homage to Chopin's music. As for Gordon Matta-Clark, his 1975 film of Conical Intersect probes the interiors of two buildings while they are being demolished to make way for the Beaubourg plaza bordering the Pompidou. There is, paradoxically, a complex perspectival beauty in condemned structures.

After this incessant emphasis on devastation, "Sex" might seem to hold out a promise of escape, but our hopes are quickly confounded. Salvador DalI wastes no time in equating phallic power with castration, while John Chamberlain sees a bride solely in terms of crushed vehicles. The caption insists on "the indisputable link between sex and death". Prostitution is prominently explored, most controversially by Larry Rivers, who turns Manet's notorious painting into a meditation on slavery called I Like Olympia in Black Face.

A thematic approach always risks reducing fine art to simplistic slogans, but "Big Bang" largely avoids this pitfall, consistently surprising us with heretical propositions. I came away feeling stimulated, rather than bullied. The themes offer fresh perspectives and a depar- ture from authoritarian rigidity. The final section, unexpectedly dedicated to "Re-Enchantment", conveys this sense of freedom by devoting an entire room to Cristina Iglesias's Passage II. Inspired by an extract from William Beckford's Vathek, an eccentric Gothic fantasy published in 1782, Iglesias stencils Beckford's words among raffia mats suspended from the ceiling. We wander through the installation, staring up at the text yet unable to read it properly. Suffused by light, this hypnotic tale induces giddiness, rather than offering a coherent narrative. We submit to its spell, however, and Iglesias succeeds in making us feel beguiled.

The exhibition is not intended to be permanent: it closes in eight months' time. Even so, the Pompidou could not conceivably go back to its old, straight-forwardly chronological approach. "Big Bang" has transformed the museum's ideas about display, and will surely exert a galvanising influence far into the future.

"Big Bang" is at the Pompidou Centre , Paris, until 27 February 2006 (telephone: 00 33 1 44 78 12 33). www.cnac-gp.fr