March 20, 2011

"La Comédie Parisienne" - Forain at the Petit Palais

Built for the Universal Exhibition in 1900 the Petit Palais was designed to glorify the City of Paris and to celebrate the benefits of art. Its architect, Charles Girault, built a virtual palace that could accommodate a large flow of people through elaborately decorated interiors and a pristine inner courtyard (see below). Ornamental details such as murals, elaborate metal work, ceiling frescoes, mosaic tiled floors and stained glass windows create the perfect environment in which to display the museum's substantial permanent collection of 19th Century decorative and fine arts and the occasional special exhibition.

Which is the reason why I visited the Petit Palais last Sunday afternoon! It was a beautiful Spring day here in Paris, sunny and warm and everyone seemed to be outside enjoying a café as I strolled along the Quais, across the Seine and through the Tuilerie Gardens. The special exhibition I had come to see was "La Comédie parisienne" a retrospective of the work of Jean-Louis Forain (1852-1931), a not very well known artist today but one who was quite a player at the turn of the century.

After a tumultuous youth, Forain had the good fortune to make friends with Impressionist masters Edouard Manet and Edgar Dégas whom he met when he joined the "Société des artistes indépendants" a group of artists who wished to be able to exhibit their works to the public without the requirement of an admission jury as was customary in the late 1800's. Many of these artists went on to become world famous with their formerly refused works now hanging in prestigious museums.

But let's get back to Forain. He was the youngest member of the group and he developed a remarkable grasp of the techniques used by other artists. These skills he applied toward perfectly capturing on paper and on canvas the mores of Parisian society at the turn of the century. Exquisite watercolors, pastels and oils record scenes in restaurants and cafés, at the theater and ballet, and in the occasional bordello. Forain was more interested in commenting on what was happening behind the scenes rather than the public face and his depictions of little ballerinas with older "sugar daddies" are especially poignant.

Forain went on to become a very well known caricaturist (he was a regular contributor to the New York Herald), he created a series of mosaic murals to decorate the elegant but short lived Café Riche, and he was a correspondent during World War I. His later work, mostly nudes and portraits, is interesting but for me lacked the magic of his earlier pieces.

Forain was very much a product of his peers. Looking at his early works one can easily see the influence of Manet, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec. But he was not a copyist, he had his own particular view and style. Although the work of Forain will never be regarded as "A" list, it is certainly important and his pictorial commentary on Belle Epoque society is almost disturbingly incisive. "La Comédie parisienne" is on view until June 5.

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