March 31, 2017

Bonjour Paris!

Spring has arrived in the City of Lights and with the new season comes a host of wonderful new exhibitions.  Here, in no particular order, is an abbreviated tour of some of the highlights.

Probably the hottest ticket in town is "Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting" which opened in February at the Louvre.  It is the first blockbuster show presented by the museum in many years and has been so popular that timed-entry tickets became mandatory for crowd control.  Whatever the wait, it is worth it as we will probably never have the chance to see twelve of Vermeer's paintings (about a third of his entire œuvre) in one place again.

Organized in conjunction with the National Gallery of Art, Dublin, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, this is a magnificent show featuring some very familiar images, like "The Milkmaid", c. 1658-61, on loan from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, as well as some less known works like "The Geographer", c. 1668-69, lent by the Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt.

The paintings are arranged according to theme, "Love Letters", "Night and Day", or "Aphrodisiacs", for example, and along with Vermeer's masterful paintings are works by his contemporaries who echoed, but never quite attained, his command of interior scenes.  Though Vermeer's nickname of The Sphinx of Delft implies a solitary painter toiling in isolation, there was, in fact, a real network of Dutch genre painters working at that time.  This exhibition gives visitors a unique opportunity to compare the similarities of technique and style between Vermeer and other artists like ter Borch, Netscher and Dou who, despite being spread throughout The Netherlands, were operating very much in tandem.

Caspar Netscher "The Lacemaker" 1669-70

A little to the east of The Louvre, in the Marais District, is the Musée Picasso where a brand new exhibition looks at the life of Pablo Picasso's first wife, Ukrainian-born Olga Khokhlova.  Thanks to a recently discovered treasure trove of personal letters and documents, the curators of this landmark show offer visitors an incredibly intimate look at the highs and lows of life with the greatest artist of the 20th century.

When Pablo Picasso met Olga in Rome in 1917, he was designing the decorations and costumes for the ballet "Parade",  and she was the prima ballerina.  It was love at first sight and they were married the next year.  In true honeymoon style, this early period was filled with parties and balls, Pablo's career was surging and the couple's son Paulo was born in 1921.  Olga was the ideal muse and Picasso first portrayed her as a melancholy figure, concerned about the plight of her family trapped in Russia during the Revolution, before softening her features to reflect her new motherhood and their domestic joy.

All this changed however when Pablo Picasso met and became obsessed with the much younger Marie-Thérèse Walter.  By 1929, portrayals of Olga had turned from elegant and womanly to tortured and grotesque, a not-so-subtle commentary on the state of their marital union.  Though the couple separated in 1935, they remained legally married until Olga's death twenty years later.

Enriched with a wealth of letters, photographs and other personal papers, "Olga Picasso" is far more than an art exhibition, it is an in depth look at a woman and her relationship with a very complicated man with a few fabulous paintings thrown in.

Now let's head over to the Left Bank and the Musée Maillol where "21 rue La Boétie" opened to large crowds on March 2.  The curious title refers to the address of what was the most famous and respected Modern Art gallery of the early 20th century.  It was owned by art dealer extraordinaire Paul Rosenberg (1881-1959), who represented, and collected, some of the great masters of modernism including Léger, Matisse, Braque and Picasso.

Though the exhibition features about 60 superb examples of Modern Art drawn from private and public collections throughout Europe, the intention is more than just presenting some nice pictures.  The far more compelling theme is the story of Paul Rosenberg himself, whose biography reads like a thriller but with lasting ramifications. 

Paul Rosenberg with Matisse's "Odalisque", 1937

The sons of an antiques dealer, Paul and his brother Léonce both followed in the family footsteps and became respected gallerists in their own rights.  Paul set up shop at 21, Rue La Boétie in 1911 where he became known as both an innovative and very ethical dealer and his stable of artists included both European and American Modern masters.  Everything was going swimmingly until the late 1930s when the Rosenbergs' Jewish heritage began to spell trouble.  Though Paul had taken preemptive action, in 1940, when the Nazis invaded France, he was forced to flee to America, via Lisbon, leaving approximately 2000 works of art behind in Paris.

Paul Rosenberg went on to establish a new gallery at 79 East 57th Street and in doing so, relocated the center of Modern Art from Paris to New York.  Though he returned to France after the war, his son Alexandre took over the 57th Street gallery and continued the family tradition. This exhibition is a wonderful tribute to the foresight and the true courage of conviction of Paul Rosenberg and his enduring contribution to Modern Art.
Finally we come to what was probably the highlight of my museum visits on this trip, "Beyond the Stars:  The Mystical Landscape from Monet to Kandinsky" now on view at the Musée d'Orsay.  I had been very eager to visit this exhibition and I was not disappointed.  From the first gallery where visitors were greeted with four examples of Claude Monet's "Rouen Cathedral" paintings each painted in a different light, and all from the collection of the Musée d'Orsay, it was obvious that this would be something special.
 Claude Monet "La Cathédrale de Rouen, Harmonie Bleu", 1893

 Claude Monet "La Cathédrale de Rouen, Harmonie Brune", 1892

 Claude Monet "La Cathédrale de Rouen, Harmonie Grise", 1892

Claude Monet "La Cathédrale de Rouen, Plein Soleil, Bleu et Or", 1893

Now, it was no real surprise to find great French Impressionist paintings in Paris.  But what was a surprise was to find a large portion of this exhibition dedicated to mystical landscapes by Scandinavian and especially Canadian artists (with a few Americans thrown in!).  It was a surprise, and for this native-born Canadian a great delight, to find the regionally famous but otherwise  little known "Group of Seven" very well represented...

Tom Thompson "The West Wind", 1916-17

Emily Carr "Indian Church", 1929
Though landscape painting has been around since the beginning of art, more often than not it is pedestrian and, let's face it, rather dull.  This fresh approach to the genre with its focus on symbolism, surrealism and the cosmos is a refreshing look at how we, as humans, co-exist with the natural, and super-natural, worlds.

Georgia O'Keeffe "Red Hills, Lake George", 1927

And now, unfortunately, my landscape will shift from beautiful Paris in the Springtime to New York at the end of winter.  But I leave with my head full of wonderful impressions and great anticipation for the new season ahead.  I hope you'll join me!

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