One of the first exhibitions I went to at the Metropolitan Museum of Art after moving to New York City was the amazing retrospective of the paintings of Edouard Manet in 1984. I remember listening to the audio guide with Philippe de Montebello's mellifluous tones describing the intense, velvety blacks and being thrilled to the point of buying one of every postcard I could find in the gift shop. What does New York in the 80s have to do with Paris of the 21st Century? I'll tell you. For the first time since that important show, a new exhibition with a fresh perspective on the artist and his work is on view at the Musée d'Orsay. Evidently this is what the public is craving as the galleries were filled to capacity even in the early morning viewing hours when I thought I was so clever to avoid a crowd!
To be sure, the curators can put almost any spin on the work of Edouard Manet (1832-1883) as the paintings speak for themselves. In this case the focus is on his anti-establishment, modernist tendencies but in my humble opinion the case is never clearly made. What I, and I am sure 90% of the other visitors, came to see were the beautiful paintings that we know from books and reproductions, in no matter what context. We were not disappointed. "Manet: The Man Who Invented Modernity" is a greatest hits parade of 19th Century masterpieces. His startling "L'Homme mort (Dead Matador)", sensuous "Olympia", disturbing "Le Balcon (The Balcony)" and reverent "Christ aux anges (Dead Christ With Angels)" were all hanging along with less major works, pastels, drawings, decorated letters and books. The only painting missing was "Un Bar aux Folies Bergère" but there was enough to see to make this a really wonderful morning.
Moving on to the early 20th Century and the master of Futurism, Gino Severini, in a small but exquisite exhibition at the Musée de l'Orangerie. Born in Italy but artistically formed in Paris, Severini's styles progressed from Pointillism to Cubism to Neo Classicism, but it is for Futurism that he is most well known All of these movements emphasized division and dissection of forms but with Futurism the deconstructed images create an intense feeling of movement and speed. One can almost see the wheels turning on the canvas.
Severini was a star of the discipline but the outbreak of World War I changed everything. Palettes darkened and a more serious, mathematical approach, Cubism, became the style Despite successful exhibitions in London and New York, Severini marked the end of the War with a return to his Tuscan roots and a more classic approach to art. His later works were no longer fantasies of color and motion, they were murals based on the Commedia dell'arte or traditional still lifes. While still very accomplished the glory days were over. "Gino Severini: Futuriste et néoclassique" is on view at the Musée de l'Orangerie until July 25, and while you're there don't miss the magnificent Monet "Waterlily" oval mural rooms upstairs!
Another artist who worked at almost the same tie but in a totally different milieu was the Dutch painter Kees Van Dongen. Now on view at the Musée d'art moderne de la Ville de Paris, "Van Dongen: Fauve, Anarchist, Socialite" is not simply a review of his stylistic periods, rather a look at his life, his œuvre and the contradictions within.
Van Dongen came to Paris in 1897 as a rebel intent on shaking things up. His style evolved from Steinlen inspired drawings of the Paris underworld, to the riot of color typified by the Fauves, to Middle Eastern exoticism and his signature women with heavily kohl-rimmed eyes to his ultimate cocktail era portraits of elegant flappers.
Van Dongen may have been an anarchist but he was far from a starving artist. Successful throughout his career, he earned a huge reputation and commensurate fees while socializing with the Paris glitterati of the Roaring Twenties. He enjoyed "the good life", both personally and professionally, until he died in 1966. "Living is the most beautiful picture - the rest is just painting" - words to live by from this paradoxical artist.
Finally, some readers may remember a blog of June 2008 when I visited an installation by Richard Serra that was part of the MONUMENTA series, an annual event (more or less) where the organizers invite an artist of international renown to create a site-specific work to fill the monumental nave of the glorious Grand Palais.
This year marks the fourth edition of MONUMENTA and it features "Leviathan" by superstar Anish Kapoor. Born in Bombay in 1954, but a resident of London since the early 1970's Kapoor is probably my personal favorite in the world of contemporary sculpture and installation pieces and a natural choice for the MONUMENTA challenge. Using a single color, a single object and a single form, Kapoor has successfully created a space within the space of Grand Palais that invites the visitor to walk around and inside the work, to immerse him or herself in the monochrome and to have an intensely contemplative experience. For me, the exterior surface was like a purple skin, pliable and warm, and entering the sculpture was a little like entering inside the human body. I found the whole experience fantastic and judging from the other people standing there in open mouthed amazement, I was not alone. I don't know yet who the next MONUMENTA artist will be, but he's got a tough act to follow.
It's been a wonderful ten days here in Paris and I've seen a lot of great art but now it's time to trade brie and Bordeaux for wurst and beer as I head off for Switzerland and Art Basel 42. See you soon!