October 24, 2012

Promenades in Paris

After a great few days in London it is time to board the Eurostar for a quick two and a quarter hour trip through the Chunnel from St Pancras Station to the Gare du Nord!  Although the weather is rainier than in England, it is great to be back in Paris.

Of course there is a lot going on here too.  Like "Impressionism and Fashion" at the Musée d'Orsay that was so crowded on the Sunday afternoon I visited they had to temporarily close the museum!   Drawing on the museum's exceptional holdings of Impressionist paintings, with a few first class loans, the curators presented some very familiar works in an entirely new setting, and with the added feature of costumes and accessories that correspond to the works on view.

In a sort of fashion show of paintings, the styles of the Victorian era are modeled in works by Manet, Renoir, Monet, Degas and my personal favorite James Tissot who was not an Impressionist painter but almost a costume artist known for his meticulous attention to detail.  Of particular interest, beyond crinolines and ruffles, was the section dedicated to "Artists and Men of the World" where I learned that while "more was more" in women's clothing, menswear at the time was the polar opposite.  Indeed, the 19th Century man wore basically two outfits, one for the day and one for the evening, both in sombre colors with little adornment.  Imagine the challenge for artists who had to create interest and luminosity out of basic black.

On an entirely different note is "Chaïm Soutine, Order out of Chaos" that recently opened at the Musée de l'Orangerie, in the Jardin des Tuileries.  Soutine may not be everybody's cup of tea, but I have always loved his distorted portraits of tradespeople, with the heavy application of vivid colors enhancing the oddity of the pose.

Chaïm Soutine was a Russian Jew who arrived in Paris in 1913 to study painting.  Although he struggled in the beginning, his career skyrocketed in 1923 when he was introduced to the American collector Dr. Albert Barnes who bought 60 paintings on the spot.  Financially secure, Soutine could pursue his own vision in art which verged on the disturbing but has ultimately stood the test of time.  Like his series of still lifes "Bœufs écorchés" that was inspired by the master Rembrandt but nearly drove his neighbors mad.  His subjects were carcasses of beef, delivered fresh from the abbatoirs and kept glistening with the regular spraying of blood.  The stench was unbearable, but the resulting paintings are fascinating in their realism, if not something one would want hanging in his dining room.

Still on the Right Bank but toward the Trocadéro at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris is another new exhibition entitled "L'Art en Guerre, France 1938-1947" a sobering examination of the art created in the shadow of and during World War II.  Beginning with the International Surrealist Retrospective of 1938 and its eerie foreboding of the oppression to come, moving to the Nazi occupation of France and the rounding up of "undesirables", including many artists, into camps, the exile and hiding of artists whose lives were in peril during the war, and finally the Liberation.  The theme of the exhibition is the resilience of artists - many of whom continued to work despite threats and a lack of materials - and the importance of art in people's lives, no matter what the circumstances.   Some of the works were very powerful, like Picasso's "L'Aubade", 1942 (above) and some were very touching as they were created out of scraps while incarcerated in the camps.  Some artists continued to have big careers and others did not survive or were forgotten.  But all were driven to make art.

Moving to a cheerier subject, I visited the absolutely gorgeous exhibition "Canaletto - Guardi:  The Two Masters of Venice" on view through January at the Musée Jacquemart-André.

18th Century aristocrats often brought back souvenir paintings of their travels, referred to as "veduta" an Italian word that refers to a highly detailed, usually large-scaled work depicting a cityscape or view.  As the Grand Tour became de rigeur for the upper classes, very often the subject of choice was a scene of Venice, particularly the Grand Canal or Piazza San Marco, and the artist of choice was Canaletto or his follower Guardi.  Both painted in a very realistic, almost photographic, style although Canaletto is considered almost scientific in his precision while Guardi was more emotional.

For the first time these two masters of the genre are being exhibited side-by-side on a theme-by-theme basis to compare the similarities and differences in their approaches.  For me, and maybe this is just because I am more familiar with Canaletto's work, the magic lies in his eye for detail and the beautiful light.  Not that I would turn down a painting by Guardi, but I found his paintings a little darker and less exquisite in their execution.  Both painters were masterful.

One interesting fact - the British Royal Family has the largest collection of Canaletto works in the world, acquired by King George III from the collector Joseph Smith and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth is listed as lender of four paintings and four drawings to this exhibition.

Finally, one of the big shows of the 2012 season is now at the Louvre as they present "Late Raphael", a look at the mature works of the Renaissance master Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino.  Considered one of the greatest Italian painters of the period, at this point in his career, Raphael was well established and working on many commissions for altar pieces, private devotionals and portraits.  So many, in fact, that he relied on his extremely talented pupils and assistants to complete these works.

For the first time ever, this exhibition examines the drawings and paintings executed in Rome during the last years of the artist's life while recognizing the contributions of these collaborators.  With exceptional loans from The Prado, and also Queen Elizabeth, the show celebrates Raphael's exceptional artistic talents but with the acknowledgement that he did not act alone.  Raphael will always be credited with technical virtuosity and an extraordinary sense of grace (his Madonna's faces are the most beautiful I've ever seen) but he worked with a very good crew who continued his tradition even after his death.  It's teamwork at its best!

I leave you with a view of the Seine taken from the Pont Neuf looking West, shortly after a rainstorm.  As you can see, autumn has arrived in Paris and a stroll along the river is absolute magic!

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