Thursday, July 22, 2010


Musee d'Orsay at the De Young

I was thinking the other day that my Dad left me two castles. There is the one here, in the house where I am now, and if you have been here, then you probably know how I feel about this place. And then there is the other castle, the one that is made out of communing with great art, hearing live music, experiencing the magic of travel. I was thinking today that there are probably several reasons why I've been trying to absorb so much art, and hanging out with him in the other invisible castle is probably a big reason. Now that I am married, published and unpregnant, it's pretty obvious to me that he is not around and this, more than anything, has added to the general malaise I wrote about earlier.

So, today, we went up to the renovated De Young Museum (holy cow, when did that happen?) to see the first of the two traveling Musee d'Orsay exhibits. This first will end September 6th, and showcases pieces having to do with the birth of Impressionism; the later show which will last into January, features Van Gogh, Cezanne and later participants of the movement we call Impressionism.

There was a time in high school when, like all teenage girls, I felt very strongly about the Impressionists. I'm pretty sure those feelings lasted into college, and I had my Cezanne poster and Turner poster (I know he wasn't technically and Impressionist, but all the same) up on the wall of my dorm room till the corners gave out. Then somewhere along the way I noticed that Impressionism had to do with selling umbrellas and matching prints to paint jobs chosen by interior decorators and the house at Giverny and, well, I lost interest. Going to this exhibit today revived my interest.

I'd forgotten how badly these various painters--Manet, Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Pissaro, etc--all wanted so badly to be part of the Salon.

I was fascinated by how Caillabotte could paint such an extraordinary piece, and still expect to be admitted! Like, no. They weren't going to let you in with that piece and, looking at it with history on my side, why on earth did you even want to be associated with all those lustless nude portraits of Greek goddesses anyway? Except, of course, artists want to be accepted. And then I got to the rooms where we learned all about how the artists hung out at Cafe Batignolle.

And how they worked together--there are two paintings of the same dead heron by different artists--and how they joked with each other--Bazille painting his friends but leaving himself out of the picture and then Manet putting in a portrait of Bazille and making Bazille taller than anyone else--and the entire show was suddenly humanized.

What's more, there were no paintings fit for tablecloths and umbrellas, though certainly you can buy such items at the end of the exhibit if you want to. Instead, we see pieces that did get accepted into the Salon, and we see how close but not quite close enough the Manets and Monets were. In other words, you can really see how at first, these artists don't seem to have come out of nowhere. They have the techniques down. It's just--they had these ideas. And their ideas led them into temptation and then, well, there's nothing so corrupting as an idea. (To be fair, the Salon paintings are very accomplished. It's just--nude pink saintly dead gods, yada yada yada. How many centuries of the same thing do we need? Wouldn't the truculent Greeks be pissed off by poor Jason and the Argonauts and that weird scarf tied around his penis?)

We see how the Spanish painterly style influenced Manet. We see how each artist--Pissaro, Sisley and all the rest--develop increasingly personal styles. That's a roller coaster for an artist--once you are on a personal path, there is no getting off. And yet still they hoped to belong and in the absence of being able to do so.

So instead of more chewy Renoir paintings and happy Monet flowers, you see a snowy landscape with a magpie. There's Whistler and his mother. And lots of Manet, which was helpful because I never quite had a fix on Manet before.

And then there are all the characters--Emile Zola shows up. It all made me wish for a pair of pants and a nice cafe. Because of course, these were all men. Where, I wonder, is that cafe now? Are there still artistic movements like this where people are trying to overthrow one establishment? Or is the establishment now a fluid thing and fragmented, as everyone keeps trying to tell us the entertainment world is. In hindsight, these artistic struggles look romantic, but of course they are not. They are quite existentially awful. It did so make me wish to be part of something, though.

At the same time, I left feeling incredibly enriched and happy. This, for me, is what happens when I spend a few hours in the invisible castle. I am thankful to all you smart curators out there in your dark suits and "air of knowing" that you always possess for putting together such an intelligent, multi-faceted and beautiful show.

Of course I knew that the Musee d'Orsay was full of treasures--I spent a great deal of time there when I was a student. But the way in which this particular exhibit is presented--with the humanizing and the story and the characters and the art instruction and true art history and the reminders about the war--just floored me. I wish I could go back again. I am so glad that Paris of the West has had a chance to host this group of treasures. I'll be getting my ticket for the winter.

(As an aside--a little excitement. We had to evacuate the building. I am pleased to report that the emergency exits are functional, that traffic flow out of the building is speedy and that reentry was generally seamless.)

Was this a traveling exhibit? I'm quite certain I saw this at Vienna's Albertina on Christmas any rate, it was quite similar in theme, with all the same painters. Monet and Manet and all...

This is the exhibit I saw:

Either way, it's amazing to me how international art becomes a shared experience. I met an opera singer at a birthday party in London--we were sharing photos on our iPhones and it turned out we had both taken a picture of the same disembodied marble head on display at a Viennese museum--we were there only days apart.
It is traveling, though the description of the show you saw doesn't really match what I saw (I don't remember rooms with those titles, for example). I know that a portion of this show also went to Nashville. I'm surprised the show didn't go to the Met, but I'm also really glad that not everything great always goes to the Met and that other cities get a shot. As a child, it was so wonderful when the De Young had a major show, or when the Opera House hosted the Kirov and ABT. I wish companies could still tour like that.
Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?