Exhibition Inquisition

The stuff you look at, but don't see.

Posts Tagged ‘French painting

The Spectacular Art of Jean-Leon Gérôme

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Getty Center

This spectacle is the first retrospective of Gérôme’s work in forty years, which means this is the first time a generation has been exposed to Gérôme like this.   The Getty’s reasons for the show are questionable since the Getty only has two works by Gérôme in its collection.  Whatever the reasons, this show is an amazing spectacle of oriental color and classical characters.  Gladiators, Vestal Virgins, residents of Pompeii, and even Caesar are all here.  This show might even have been appropriately displayed over at the Getty Villa in Malibu instead of the Center.

Look! Some naked women! It’s okay though cause they’re Greek, so we’re not objectifying them.

Other than a major retrospective of French academic painter, the show is an exploration of the gross commoditization of Orientalism in art, showcasing the hypocrisy of European society’s fascination with Eastern culture with its harems and bath houses.  Dialogues on race and culture whether intentional or not, are a major part of this show, from naked little boys to polychrome statues of naked (or is it nude) women.

I mean, come on…

The exhibition rooms are painted in an appropriate “oriental” palette, ruby maroons, and deep aquamarines are as decadent as some of the scenes in Gérôme’s paintings.  The only problem I had with the color scheme was in just one particular instance where The Snake Charmer (1870) was displayed on a aquamarine blue, the clash of the mosaic wall in the painting against the wall it hung on was visual agony.

Not painted from memory, painted from travel photos.

The exhibition runs the length of two large halls, at the end of the first hall in a small separated space of photographs from the Getty Research Institute’s library.  The selection of photographs are ones taken of the during Gérôme’s travels to the Middle East and the Orient.  Some of them directly relate to paintings in the exhibition, a photo of a tiled wall is the background in The Snake Charmer, another one shows the obvious inspiration for The Carpet Merchants (1887).  The Getty Research Institute has been doing a great job at displaying its special collection of photographs, both at the Getty and elsewhere.  There are some photos from the Getty’ collection in the current Eakins’s exhibition going on at LACMA (keep your eyes out for a post on that soon).

Just imagine this crazy thing in his livingroom!

Down the second hall, full of more classical and Eastern scenes, one comes to the last room of the exhibition, which Christopher Knight of the LA times has rightly pointed out as particularly interesting.  The room showcases Gérôme’s later transition to sculpture.  Gérôme’s fascination with the artistic power of sculpture can be seen in his painting of Pygmalion and Galatea (1890).  The myth serves as a theme for the room, which contains some of Gérôme’s sculptures. One of the sculptures is the awkwardly sticking polychrome Corinth (1903-04), from the collection of a certain J. Nicholson.

Distracting pun

The last work in the show is hung by itself: Gérôme’s non-high-art piece, the advertisement Opticien (1902).  The visual pun for “little dog,” in French “petit chien,” being devised here for commercial purposes.  This work, while highly enjoyable and a much needed relief from the much heavier preceding paintings, is problematic for me.  I don’t know how to resolve the fact that I think a retrospective should be a sincere display of the whole range of a single artist, but at the same time this work is soooo out there.  I might have approved of this work had it been snuck into the exhibition somewhere in the middle.  But as it stands at the very end of the exhibition, it draws too much attention to itself, and seems like an insincere inclusion when compared to the tone of the rest of the exhibition.

Museé de Orsay, you are EVERWHERE!

Other noteworthy remarks:  Where did all of these works come from? A major contributor of works was the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, the Metropolitan loaned several works, some from personal collections (i.e. J. Nicholson), and of course work from the Museé de Orsay!  As mentioned in the posts about the de Young’s exhibition of works from the Museé de Orsay, congrats once again Museé for effectively getting your pieces out there on display during your construction!

– H.I.

The Tulip Folly (1882), how gay!

And a completely gratuitous additional painting, only because I have an obsession with tulips.

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Birth of Impressionism – Masterpieces from the Museé de Orsay

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de Young Museum

The de Young has two major gallery spaces for temporary exhibitions.  One is upstairs on the second floor, in a space I would call awkward, even a ruin-er of otherwise good shows.  I saw an exhibition of Yves Saint Laurent in this upstairs space that was actually horrible to walk through, mostly because of the awkward space.  The de Young also has temporary exhibition space on its lower floor, which from the shows I’ve seen there is a much more successful space.  It is in this space that the current show, Birth of Impressionism, is held.

Big title, big show

The show is marketed all over the museum; banners hang from light poles, the entire front façade of the Herzog & de Meuron-designed museum is splashed with a golden title of the show, and details of some of the most famous pieces in the show are hung in the windows of the upper level galleries.  In front of the museum are even cut out figures from some of the works; children can put their head through a hole and get their picture taken as Manet’s Fifer.

My sister, the Fifer

All the marketing fuss is not without reason, the show is amazing, and definitely worth the $25 ($20 if you buy in advance) ticket price.  It’s certainly cheaper than traveling to Paris to see these works, and even if you did go to see them in the Museé de Orsay, they wouldn’t be there because all of the Museé’s masterpieces are traveling.  The Museé de Orsay has devised a brilliant plan to have their works seen (and make some money off of ticket sales) while their galleries are closed for renovation.  It’s a brilliant plan for the Museé de Orsay to make money off ticket sales, save money from storing their collection, and provide with a wide public access to their works. Everyone wins in this situation.

Holding cell--so anxious

This show is such a crowd-drawer that the tickets are timed–swells of people are let in every half hour and inevitably smother the previous group out of the exhibition space.   (The rooms are crowded and probably better to visit on a weekday.)  Before being let in, visitors are confined to a nice holding cell—a hallway with large photo murals of period photographs showing the broad boulevards of post-Haussmannization Paris, and a wall of portraits of the first practitioners of impressionist painting.

Yeah I made this diagram

The exhibition is divided into a series of nine rooms.  The first room is called “Birth of Impressionism,” but the works in this room seem irrelevant to Impressionism other than to be a foil for what follows.  Bouguereau’s Birth of Venus dominates this first room, a textbook opponent of the impressionists.  I can still remember my AP Art History class in high school offering the contenders of Manet’s Olympia to another Bouguereau Venus.  The bourgeoisie luxury of this work is made even more regal with the maroon-painted walls and another photo collaged wall of a glass and iron building of B aron Haussmann’s new Paris.

Bouguereau as foil

The next room is called “the Salon,” and again exemplifies everything the Impressionists were not, with perhaps a few mostly overlooked marks in the evolution to Impressionism.  This evolutionary logic dominates the curatorial organization of the show: action and reaction.  In the salon room, hang many masterpieces of the academy tradition.  Religious works and paintings with mythological themes dominate, with a few genre paintings by Courbet to mix it up.  This room was full of people and was made only more crowded by large round velvet-upholstered benches.  I would normally be against the benches because they contributed to the crowding, but they were so luxurious and sumptuous that I can only approve.

Following, was a room called “the Terrible Year.”  It shows how the tradition of the Salon was beginning to be questioned, but also how political turmoil in Europe, specifically Spain and France was beginning to affect artists and their work.  The works in this room are a shift in tone from the previous room, and the color on the walls changes dramatically from imperial maroon and purple to a sober dreary blue.

The Fifer, so French or so Spanish?

The following room is also painted this dreary blue and focuses on “French Painters and Spanish Style.” Again the curatorial statement of the evolution of impressionism dominates.  The same story: Spanish painters (beginning with Velazquez, leading to Goya, etc.) influenced the early Impressionists.  This is of course as we have been taught, most evidently in Manet’s work.  “Manet” is the subject of the next room, and connections are easily made between the Spanish court painting s of the previous room, to Manet’s loose and visible brushwork in paintings like The FiferThe Fifer received special thanks from the museum to a special donor for making its display possible.  Perhaps this donor paid for the specific cost of shipping it to San Francisco, or maybe paid the insurance for the painting to be in America.

I want to be part of the Bazille family!

“Ecole de Batignolles” was the subject of the next room which outlined how the heroes of Impressionism gathered themselves and shared ideas usually outside of the city in resort towns.  The piece that dominates this room is Bazille’s Family Reunion.  This painting dominates not only because of its size and central positioning, but because of Bazille’s style and particularly because of the brushwork.  This work seems less concerned with the works of the fellow impressionists and more self confident in its exploratory style.  This categorizes most of the works in this room: early experiments.

Least favorite Composition

This leads to the highly developed Impressionism or “Classical Impressionism.”  This long room, divided by several wall partitions held the most recognizable masterpieces from the Museé de Orsay:  train stations and parade-filled streets on Bastille Day, Renior’s tacky images of bourgeois life.  Whistler (an American) was included because of his Frenchness (ala Picasso) and is represented in his textbook masterpiece Whistler’s Mother.  Why anyone likes this painting is beyond me.  A painting I do very much appreciate (although he was little known in his time) is Caillebotte’s The Floor Scrapers.  I’ve always been a fan of Caillebotte’s and love his play with light on reflective surfaces, be it the wooden beams that haven’t yet been stripped of their varnish in The Floor Scrapers, or with water between cobbles in his Rainy Day in Paris in the Art Institute of Chicago.

Most favorite, and not just because of the muscley Scrappers

Towards the end of the Classic Impressionism room was a portrait by Renoir (a work of his I actually like).  It is a portrait of a lady and it was sent to San Francisco in 1915 for the Pacific Panama International Exposition, and the curators were kind enough to include this fun little fact in the painting’s label.  This lovely portrait has returned again to San Francisco in a diplomatic act of promoting French culture abroad.  I’m sure that the collection of titans of French painting in this exhibition hall managed to turn several visitors into Francophiles.

Renior's diplomatic Lady

There is one last room in the exhibition, and again there is a shift in the wall color, the bright summery blue of the previous rooms transitioned into a sober, critical brown.  This room was organized around the topic of “Impressionist Dialogues.”  Once the impressionist movement was born, what happened next?  More experimentation, serious exchange of ideas, and responses to other artists are evident in the works in this room which include Degas’s Ballet Lesson.

Degas - the only superstar Impressionist I actually like


This room really is meant to link this exhibition, with another exhibition (again of traveling masterpieces from the Musee de Orsay ) happening at the other arm of the San Francisco Fine Arts Museums, the Legion of Honor.  The show there called Impressionist Paris: City of Light, which opened a week after the de Young show.  This chronology is directly mentioned in promotional materials for the exhibitions, with special ticketing options to see both shows.  Even later in the year will be a third show at the de Young called Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay.  The trio of shows is sure to be a cohesive (textbook even) presentation of the development of Impressionist art.  Again I am fascinated by the Musee de Orsay’s strategy for keeping their works on view, even though they can’t show them in their own space due to renovation.  What a clever and well organized solution!

– H.I.

Costco-sized giftshop

P.S. there is a large gift shop at the end of the exhibition that visitors are forced to pass through as they leave the exhibition hall.  If ever I was critical of the indiscreet gift shops at the end of Getty exhibitions, the de Young’s boutique/bookstore/millinery makes the Getty shops look tasteful.  I did by a postcard of the Caillebotte, but I refused to do so from this gift shop, so I bought one from a much smaller and less garish gift corner elsewhere in the museum.