October 23, 2016

What's On in Paris - Part II

Hidden in the quiet residential district of La Nouvelle-Athènes, just south of the Moulin Rouge and north of the Galeries Lafayette, is the small but charming Musée de la Vie Romantique.  Accessed via a cobblestone lane and housed in a pink and green villa, this museum is dedicated to French artists and writers of the Romantic Period, approximately 1800-1850.

Built in 1830, the house was the residence of the Dutch-born artist Ary Scheffer who welcomed Le Tout Paris to his Friday evening salons.  Regular visitors included Chopin, Sand, Rossini, Dickens, Ingres, Delacroix and Gounod, a real who's who in musical, literary and artistic circles.  Today the main house contains the museum's permanent collection, primarily the paintings of Ary Scheffer, and an extensive display of memorabilia of George Sand.

The two former ateliers flanking the entrance to the estate have also been converted into exhibition space, but for temporary shows.  This season, in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the poet's death, the Musée de la Vie Romantique is presenting "L'Œuil de Baudelaire", a look at the aesthetic vision of Charles Baudelaire.

Though the Parisian born Baudelaire (1821-1867) was an art critic, a translator (one of the first to translate Edgar Allan Poe), and an essayist, he is best known for his poetry.  His personal life was one of despair plagued by debt, drinking and disease, but despite - or maybe because of - his insecure existence, he wrote some of the most powerful and enduring poetry of the Romantic period.  At the time of his death, penniless and in a semi-paralyzed state in a hospice in Brussels, much of his work was unpublished and the extent of his genius was not recognized until later.

This exhibition examines the writings of Baudelaire, particularly his art criticism, and the works of art they describe.  At the same time, it guides us through the changing artistic aesthetic of his time - the last days of Romanticism and the rise of Realism - and the poet's lasting contribution to Modernité.

The entrance to the exhibition in the former atelier

With over 100 examples of works by Baudelaire's contemporaries including Delacroix, Daumier, Ingres, Courbet, Manet, Corot and Goya, visitors to the show are invited to compare and contrast these visual references with the ideas and principles expressed in his art criticism and major poems "Les Fleurs du Mal" and "Le Spleen de Paris".  While this exhibition may have been a little esoteric for non-poets, especially English speakers, it did present some lovely works of art and a clearer understanding of the life and times of this important writer.

Another show dedicated to a 19th century literary master is currently on view at the City of Paris Museum of Fine Arts, the glorious Petit Palais.  "Oscar Wilde: Insolence Incarnate" is the first major exhibition dedicated to this Dublin-born writer in his adopted home and the city where he died in 1900.
I was very eager to see this show - so keen in fact that I waited over 40 minutes in a queue to enter!  My patience was rewarded with a nicely installed, very informative and interesting exhibition that I wish had been a little bigger as they had a lot to talk about.

Oscar Wilde first came to Paris as a 20 year old in 1874 (he stayed in the Hôtel du Quai Voltaire, which, coincidentally, was where Charles Baudelaire had also stayed decades before) shortly after finishing his studies at Trinity College in Dublin and just before entering Magdalen College in Oxford.  The exhibition begins with his early life after graduation when he set himself up in a suite of rooms in London that he decorated with lilies and blue and white china - symbols of the Aesthetic Movement of which he was a champion.

He began writing professionally, first as a poet, and then more lucratively as an art critic.  His commentary on the Pre-Raphaelites were gushing but his opinion on other artists of the day were a little less enthusiastic.  He commented that James Tissot's picnic scenes was too "photographic" and condemed James Whistler's "Nocturnes" as "worth looking at for about as long as one looks at a real rocket, that is, for somewhat less than a quarter of a minute".

James Tissot "Holyday", c. 1876

In 1882, Oscar Wilde embarked on a lecture tour of North America in the hope of earning both fame and fortune.  He succeeded at both.  Dressed in a fur coat with breeches and silk stockings, he visited regions from Canada to Mexico, from the Mormons of Salt Lake City to the Indians of Sioux City, and spoke of beauty in general and the decorative arts in particular.  It was a wild success and he returned to Europe flush with both money and inspiration for writing.

After a three month stay in Paris where he met Victor Hugo, Paul Verlaine and Maurice Rollinat, he returned to London and married the lovely Constance Lloyd.  Photographs in the exhibition show this to be a very happy idyll, blessed with two healthy sons, Cyril, born in 1885, and Vyvyan, born one year later.  At the same time, Oscar Wilde's career was flourishing - his plays were being produced, his lectures were well attended, his stories were being published, and he was in demand in society circles.

In 1891, shortly after writing his only novel "The Picture of Dorian Gray", Oscar Wilde met the person who would eventually be his undoing.  In a striking example of life imitating art, Wilde's encounter with Lord Alfred Douglas was every bit as dramatic as Dorian Gray's descent into decadence and eventual madness.  Wilde and Douglas began a passionate and tempestuous affair, highly risky in an age when homosexuality was against the law.  Later that year while in Paris, Wilde wrote the story of "Salomé", in French, with the express desire of seeing Sarah Bernhardt perform the title role.  This was never to be, as the play was considered blasphemous and banned in Britain leaving Wilde to reconsider his identity as an Englishman.  Ultimately, after having attempted to sue the father of his lover, Lord Douglas, Wilde was tried and convicted of "gross indecency" and given the maximum sentence of two years of hard labor in Reading Gaol.

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, 1893

It is not clear at what point Constance Lloyd-Wilde realized that her husband was not faithful, but after his imprisonment she and their sons left England and changed their last names to Holland.   They never divorced and she visited him both in prison and after his release.  After gaining his freedom, Wilde also left England and returned to France but he was not welcomed with open arms there either.  He died in 1900, bankrupt, alcoholic and broken, and was buried in a pauper's grave.  

Oscar Wilde's legend has gone on to achieve mythic proportions.  Nine years after his death his remains were transferred to the Père-Lachaise cemetery and three years after that, his tomb was marked with the sculpture of a sphinx by the British artist Jacob Epstein.  It continues to be visited by thousands of followers who leave lipstick kisses in his memory.

This exhibition is a long overdue tribute to an important figure in both literature and humanity.  His remarkable story was brought to life with never before seen family photographs and documents provided by his grandson, Merlin Holland, who co-curated the show and provided a very personal viewpoint of this larger-than-life character.  Oscar Wilde was a complicated genius - brilliant and self destructive at the same time - and "Insolence Incarnate" is a touching tribute to both the writer and the man.

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