In the shadows of Giants
By Raichel Le Goff
We are growing used to ‘blockbuster’ art exhibitions in Australia aimed at luring crowds to our public galleries and museums via European superstars such as Monet, van Gogh and Salvador Dali.
In Canberra right now, we can view iconic works like Gogh’s Starry Night (1888) and Gauguin’s Tahitian Women (1891) in the Masterpieces from Paris exhibition, courtesy of the Musée d’Orsay. The inclusion of a handful of familiar paintings that have been popularized through the gift card industry and discount art books are essential if the exhibition is to be sold to the Australian public. The majority of the 112 works on display in Masterpieces are unfamiliar to our eyes even if the colours, styles and iconography may feel visually comfortable. Thirty-five artists are represented in the selection and unless you have studied Art History 101, only half a dozen names will seem important: van Gogh, Degas, Monet, Cezanne, Toulouse-Lautrec (thanks to Hollywood) and possibly Gauguin.
Maximilien Luce and Theo van Rysselberghe are names unlikely to excite anticipation as you book your interstate Jetstar flight and Canberra accommodation online.
Not being able to get a clear viewpoint to gaze upon the famous masterpieces due to the stifling crowd, I was relieved to find that most of my favourite works were left alone. Odilon Redon’s section with Eyes closed (1890) and the fascinating Sleep of Caliban (1895-1900) were more or less ignored. I can’t recall anyone pausing in front of Paul Sérusier’s important small painting The talisman which he painted under the guidance of Gauguin and which had a profound influence upon Bonnard, Denis, Vuillard and Ranson.
The good thing about a blockbuster exhibition is that you get a lot of exquisite works like the Sérusier thrown in as “stocking-fillers”.
Paul Sérusier (France 1864-1927) The talisman, the Aven at the Bois d’Amour 1888, oil on wood panel, 27.0 21.5cm Musée d’Orsay, Paris
One painting that attracted a lot of attention was the mysterious Violet Wave (1895) by Georges Lacombe, a member of the Nabis. The artificial colour scheme lends the painting a dream-like persona and the black rocks in the centre seem to conjure up a ghostly figure. I think people were mostly intrigued as to the meaning of the black shapes and were searching for a narrative. Christine Dixon in the exhibition catalogue comments on “the strange power of the image” and it certainly seemed to have a magnetic pull for Australian viewers.
Georges Lacombe, (1868-1916) The violet wave, 1895-6, oil on canvas, 73.0 x 92.0cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Seurat was over-represented and several other examples of Neo-Impressionism were hard to appreciate in the context of the superior Gauguins and Cézannes in the next room. One of the paintings grouped with the Seurat works was Beach at Heist (1891) from the Belgian artist Georges Lemmen and if you have never heard of Lemmen, do not feel shame. Beach at Heist shared with Paul Signac’s Women at the well (1892) and Entry to the Port of Marseille (1911) a lurid palette that jarred the senses and eradicated all hereditary links with the subtlety of the Monets in Room 1.
Two more paintings of modest fame deserve mention and they are Pierre Bonnard’s Woman dozing on a bed (1899) and Vilhelm Hammershoi’s Rest (1905). Both present the quality of sensuality in young female models but in drastically different ways.
Vilhelm Hammershoi (Denmark 1864-1916), Rest, 1905, oil on canvas, 49.5 x 46.5cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
The Bonnard painting is also known by the title Indolent Woman as a naked girl stretches out lazily on a rumpled bed like a cat in the sun. Hammershoi concentrates all attention on the erotic zone of a woman’s neck as the sitter, this time fully-clothed, faces away from the viewer. It is voyeuristic but also reverential as the painter seems to worship the simple unadorned beauty of the sitter’s exposed white skin, wisps of hair curling at the nape. It has all the suppressed desire of Vermeer’s Girl with Pearl Earring and the cool Danish light provides a reduced silver-flecked texture that is strikingly at odds with Bonnard’s shimmering scenes of southern France which dominate the room. His Indolent Woman was painted before Bonnard left Paris to live in the south but still manages to anticipate the warm, lascivious atmosphere evoked in later works. The young model was Marthe Boursin who became Bonnard’s mistress and eventual wife, and her uninhibited pose is daring for art of the time. What I find most fascinating about the image, is its timelessness. There is nothing that ties the scene to 1899 and it could have been painted yesterday. Even the model’s slim figure and the highlight on her hip-bone seem to fit our current canon of beauty rather than the classic fin de siècle silhouette we know from French photography of the period.
Pierre Bonnard (France 1867-1947), Woman dozing on a bed (Indolent woman), oil on canvas, 96.0 x 106.0cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Lastly, the heavy pedagogic profile of the exhibition should be commented upon as it is clear that the curators have decided to make Masterpieces from Paris an educational journey. Visitors are prompted to pick up a set of headphones and a booklet which guide you around thirty-one key works. There is one guided tour for adults and one for children. Obviously a drawback with this system is that it directs traffic to form immovable blocks of people in front of certain paintings. However this is the standard formula for large exhibitions today internationally and it is here to stay.
Being old-fashioned, I would prefer that people were trusted to make up their own minds about the art on the walls and if they want to learn more, a souvenir catalogue will give them hours of reflection afterward and is by far, a better learning tool. I believe that people have forgotten how to look at art, even the ones fresh with a B.A. in History of Art under their belt. The one essential element is missing in all these blockbuster exhibitions and that is TIME. The National Gallery of Australia’s solution to crowd control was to introduce timed visits. Until large exhibitions and large crowds can be reconciled, I am not convinced by big budget art shows and personally, will continue to encourage my students to seek out quality viewing experiences in quiet, calm, surroundings with no time restrictions. I will continue to urge them simply, to look.
Masterpieces from Paris Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne & beyond. Post-Impressionism from the Musée d’Orsay National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, ACT From 4 December 2009 – 18 April 2010