March 27, 2014

What's On at the Musée d'Orsay

Spring has certainly sprung here in Paris.  After the interminable winter in New York it has been a real pleasure to go outside without bundling up and to see some green on the trees!

The Spring season has also brought some new exhibitions to the wonderful Musée d'Orsay.  As if their permanent collection of gorgeous Impressionist works isn't enough of a draw, now there are two special shows to add to the pleasure!

First up is a survey of the works of the French Symbolist artist Gustave Doré (1832-1883).  "Master of the Imagination" is a comprehensive overview of every aspect of his œuvre from paintings to sculpture to illustrated books.

This is the first retrospective of Doré's work in thirty years and the curators have made a special effort to include all aspects of his career.  From his early beginnings painting portraits of circus performers to his wildly successful illustrations for important volumes like "The Bible" and Dante's "Inferno" to his later landscape paintings, this exhibition is exhaustive to say the least.

While I am a big fan of Doré's more surreal imagery like the 1862 illustration for "Puss in Boots" shown above, I cannot work up the same enthusiasm for his large-scale paintings of mountains and meadows.  However, while I may find some works such as "Accident on Mount Cervin" (see right) macabre, they had a profound effect not only on his contemporaries but on our popular culture today.  In fact, the worlds of film (think "King Kong" and "The Lord of the Rings") and cartoons and animation (think Walt Disney and Tim Burton) all owe a huge debt to the imagination of Gustave Doré.

The other major show that just opened at the Musée d'Orsay, may sound depressing but it really was not.  "Van Gogh / Artaud.  The Man Suicided by Society" was actually the title of an essay written by French artist Antonin Artaud, for a catalogue accompanying an exhibition of works by Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890), in Paris in 1947.

The sad tale of Vincent Van Gogh's struggles with mental illness are well documented, from the cutting off his own ear to his institutionalization to his eventual suicide.  Readers may not be as familiar with the life of Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) whose childhood illness' lead to an addiction to opium and a lifetime of confinements in various asylums.  This shared mental instability was the impetus behind the commission of the essay and is now the theme of the exhibition currently on view.

Antonin Artaud postulates that rather than being mad, Van Gogh was actually perfectly sane and it was his clear vision that was frightening to "normal" people.  He goes further to suggest that it was the "impoverished spirit" of the late 19th century that pushed the artist to suicide at the age of 37.  Of course, one has to bear in mind that Artaud's mental clarity was also very much in question.

The show opens with a bang - an entire room filled with Van Gogh self-portraits from various stages in his life.  Done in his signature style, Van Gogh paints himself both with and without a beard, seldom facing the viewer and always with a fixed gaze.  It is truly a sight to see.  The show continues with exhibits of drawings, letters and about 30 more paintings by this Impressionist master alternating with drawings and the writings of Artaud.  It is not a question of who is the superior artist, but a unique perspective on one of the most well known and tortured figures of the era as seen through the eyes of someone in a similar state.  Judging by the queue waiting to enter the galleries, this is an intriguing idea for a lot of people!

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