Exhibition Inquisition

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

Posts Tagged ‘Musee de Orsay

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.

Sojourn to San Francisco (Pt. 2)

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de Young Museum

This isn’t a harbor—the de Young Sub

Across from the recently reopened California Academy of Sciences is another new building.  The de Young Museum (part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) looks like a beached and rusting submarine, parked awkwardly in the middle of Golden Gate Park.  Vestigial elements of the old building remain; a pair of sexy art deco sphinxes mark where the old museum’s entrance used to be (a few hundred feet from where it is now).

Something predictable, and something delightfully surprising

Several of the museum’s collections are displayed on the first floor: Alaskan art, some contemporary decorative arts, Pre-Columbian, and modern and contemporary American painting and sculpture.  Alaska art (mostly small crafts pieces) leads to the contemporary decorative arts gallery.  This room contains a mixture of tacky glass pieces from the 80s (purple and teal color palette dominates), predictable pieces like Chihuly, and a Nick Cave body suite thrown in.  The dec arts room leads off in two directions, one to the randomly linked pre-Columbian galleries, the other way along a window-lined hallway to the modern and contemporary galleries.

Size matters, but so does space

These collections are given the most real estate—allowing the large sculptures and paintings space to breathe without competing with each other.  For example: even though Josaih McElheny’s Model for Total Reflective Abstraction (after Buckminster Fuller & Isamu Noguchi) takes up most of the floor in one room, a hanging fixture of burn wood, Cornelia Parker’s Anti-Mass, and Al Farrow’s cathedral reliquary made from ammunition are all given their due space.

Best way to show this Ruscha?

Several rooms of painting later, was a smaller room with a special curatorial title and wallpanel.  Photo / Synthesis features works by eight contemporary artists “who have explored various methods of assembling and organizing photographic images into multifaceted constructions.”  Predictably Ruscha is included; in a series of parking lots, and of course Every Building on the Sunset Strip. I was surprised with how awkwardly the accordion book was displayed, it was even worse than how it was displayed in LACMA’s New Topographics.  The form of book was completely denied in the de Young’s display, which was laid out in a ring standing up on its side.  The display of Every Building that I think was the most successful was how it was displayed in a show at the USC Fisher Museum of Art.  In a long display case that reached almost from wall to wall, the accordion book was laid out flat and almost to its full length.

They saved this thing!?

I circled back to explore the Pre-Columbian galleries.  Pre-Columbian galleries interest me especially since seeing the Jorge Pardo designed galleries at LACMA.  (Look for a post comparing LACMA’s Pre-Columbian galleries to the Natural History Museum’s galleries soon.)  Had I come out of the dec art gallery into the Pre-Columbian galleries, the first thing I would have seen would have been the dominating wall mural.  This kitchy map of the world displays various flora and fauna, and seems more educational in function than artistic.  The de Young sometimes has an odd way of connecting adjacent galleries with seemingly unrelated works.  This map is one of those odd ways.

The display of the Pre-Columbian collection is fairly standard, other than being in a glass walled, natural light-flooded room.  At the de Young wall cases, and free standing glass vitrines are light naturally, somehow making the objects more relatable and utilitarian, rather than simply being elevated to the level of an art object.

Doggy style—West Mexican ceramics

Little explanation is given for many of the objects, especially in the case of the Western Mexican ceramics.  These objects are notoriously looted, and became popular with collectors especially in the early half of the 20th century.  One of these ceramics even features prominently into an Alfred Hitchcock film.  Similar like ceramic objects are gathered into vitrines, one has a cache burnished dogs in various activities, even including copulation.

I've seen this pair before

Another thing that struck me about some of the Western Mexican ceramics was the similarity of works, with ones I have seen in Los Angeles.  The female and male burial pair with odd geometric appendages is almost identical to ones found in the Natural History Museum.  A figured with a white running geometric design is a twin of one in the Natural History Museum, and a triplet to another at LACMA.  These “types” are so prevalent in collections, and yet so little is known about them as they are scavenged from burial sites with no archeological information known about them.

I know waaay too much about this type of figurine

Other works in the de Young’s collection do have a lot of attribution, explanation, and even respectly present this information.  One dim room contains a collection of murals from Teotihuacan from the Wagner Collection. The wallpanel is almost apologetic and therefore praiseworthy for its honesty and its explanation about museum collecting practices.

“Owing to the size and importance of the donation and ethical issues regarding cultural patrimony, the museum approached officials in Mexico to discuss a cooperative program of conservation and care and the voluntary return of at least half of the murals to Mexico.  After several years of negotiation, an agreement between this museum and Mexico’s National institute of Anthropology was executed, providing for the joint conservation, exhibition and disposition of the collection.”

I am really struck with the honesty of this wall panel, and think that it should be seen as an example of the correct way to handle issues of cultural patrimony, and the transparency of the museum’s wheelings and dealings.  Okay, I’m getting a little choked up about the walltext…didactics aside, the murals were in excellent condition, the color looks like it was applied days ago instead of the centuries ago that it actually was.

Struck by the artwork, and by the honesty in a walltext

The last thing of note on the ground floor of the museum was a tiny little annex of a room which contained two mural cycles.  The two murals, The Land and The Sea, were painted by Gottardo F.P. Piazzoni between 1929 and 1932.  More transparency! The labels for these works say they are a “transfer” from the S.F. Arts Commission and the Asian Art Museum.  The two, five-panel murals were painted originally for the Old Main Library, and suggested views that might have been seen through the walls of the building.  The murals were removed from the Beaux Arts building when it was converted into the Asian Art Museum.  The room in which they are now displayed “was designed to reflect the dimensions and arrangement” of the original location.  I have a soft spot in my heart for projects like these since I worked a mural cycle, which had been removed from its original home.

Murals I'm glad they kept

The second floor has galleries reserved for temporary exhibitions, as well as the display of its early American, African, and Oceanic collections.  A curatorial trend I’ve noticed with the display of African art is to introduce it with contemporary works.  Both in L.A. (at LACMA recently) and at the de Young this took the form of an El Anatsui work.   The massive wall hangings, which look like glittering golden weavings by El Anatsui are actually made from recycled metal liquor bottle caps.  The works are made in El Anatsui’s native Ghana.  The contemporary work which is still craft-based is supposed to related to the more traditional African works in the galleries like masks and ceremonial objects.

El Anatsui, diplomatic work to contemporary visitors

Across from the El Anatsui work is the intro walltext for the African galleries.  More honesty and transparency:

“The museum’s collection of African art originated in the California Midwinter Exposition of 1894, when exhibits from “the colonies of Africa” and countries around the world were displayed in pavilions in Golden Gate Park.  The objects were presented as exotic curiosities in a stereotyped, even racist, manner; few people saw them as works of art.”

It then explains how the collection grew mostly randomly from various sources and that the objects on display are “mostly traditional-based arts,” but that the museum hopes that it will “grow in multitude and dimension in the future.”  This declaration for pursuing an increasingly scholarly and serious collection makes the collection more valuable to the public.  It also seemed to be a genuine statement of redress .

Yikes, that’s a lot of grubby fingerprints

Linked to the African galleries are the Pacific Island galleries (typical museum strategy for putting the “primitive art” next to one another.  The de Young never uses the term “primitive” I should add.)  The large wooden vitrines are massive and beautiful in their own right except they seem in desperate need of cleaning.  Finger and large handprints were strikingly visible on the glass of the cases, and they seemed neglected.  This bothered me mostly because the remedy seems so easy, grad some Windex!

Take a seat

The de Young also has an extensive collection of earlier American art installed on the second floor: painting, sculpture, decorative arts and furniture.  One of my favorite installations of objects from the permanent collection was an installation of a slew of various chairs in a skinny corridor.  This installation seemed Warholian, and reminded me of Warhol’s curated show Raid the Ice Box at the Rhode Island School of Design.  Unlike Warhol’s exhibition, all of the chairs in the de Young display are well conserved, but viewing them like this in one line allows for a visitor to see trends in object-making and compare materials and craftsmanship.

Popular tourist spot

Crowning the museum is an observatory tower whose top floor can be accessed by the public and allows for sweeping views of Golden Gate Park, and on less-foggy days amazing unobstructed views of the city.  The de Young also has special exhibition space.  The largest of these exhibition spaces is on the lower level of the building.  The next post will be a review of Birth of Impressionism, a traveling exhibition of works from the Musee de Orsay.

– H.I.