The Grand Tour II: D’Orsay is focused and magnificent

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Gustave Courbet “The Artist’s Studio” at the Musée D’Orsay

PARIS — While the Louvre is a sprawling mass of broad history, the Musée D’Orsay is tight, concise and an art lover’s dream. To use a boxing analogy, it is pound-for-pound one of the best museum’s in the world.

The museum features mostly French art from 1848 to 1914, a period that saw a move from classicism to modernism. The museum, which opened in 1986, is located in the former Gare D’Orsay, a Beaux-Arts railway station on the left bank of the Seine. It houses the largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces in the world, and much of the work is familiar to anyone who has given even a cursory glance at an art history book in the past 20 years.

The building, as the museum’s website points out, is a work of art in itself. It is spacious and bright, retaining the curved glass ceiling of the station. Moreover, each of the exhibition rooms are targeted and detailed, with histories and biographical information readily available — the audio guides are also well worth the rental, providing a lot of background to movements and individual pieces.

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Vincent Van Gogh “Self Portrait”

Any time Vincent Van Gogh is in the building, he is the star of the show, and the D’Orsay has an impressive collection, sprinkling in Paul Gauguin pieces which complement the story of their combative friendship. The works include self portraits from 1887 and 1889, the famous painting of his bedroom at Arles, “Portrait of Doctor Gachet,” and his magnificent “The Church at Auvers” that span the year 1885 to 1890. Gauguin is represented by fine examples of his Tahitian women, as well as “The Beautiful Angéle.”

The museum is chock full of recognizable paintings such as Edgar Degas’ paintings of dancers — and his original “Little 12-Year-Old Dancer” sculpture — works by Auguste Renoir and Georges Seurat, Paul Cezanne and Henri Rousseau, as well as James Abbott McNeil Whistler’s portrait of his mother (the real title of which is “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1”).

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Edouard Manet’s “Le Dejeuner sur L’Herbe”

Edouard Manet’s “Le dejeuner sur l’herbe” is glorious in the flesh, with the added treat of two panels of Claude Monet’s version close by. Monet’s version was started in the spring of 1865. It was intended to be both a tribute and a challenge to Manet whose painting had been the subject of critical and public scorn when it was shown at the Salon des Refusés in 1863. The original painting measured four meters by six, but the two panels are all that remain.

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The surviving panels of Claude Monet’s “Le Dejeuner sur L’Herbe”

The museum’s website quotes Monet telling the painting’s story: “I had to pay my rent, I gave it to the landlord as security and he rolled it up and put in the cellar. When I finally had enough money to get it back, as you can see, it had gone moldy.” Monet got the painting back in1884, cut it up, and kept only three fragments. The third has now disappeared.

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Rodin’s plaster model for “The Gates of Hell”

Even among so many great works, Auguste Rodin’s plaster model for “The Gates of Hell” is simply breathtaking. It is almost 20-feet high and 13-feet wide and demands reverence and careful consideration. The sculpture was not cast in Rodin’s lifetime, and it was not until The Rodin Museum in Philadelphia’s founder, Jules Mastbaum ordered two sets of the doors — one for Philadelphia and one for the Musée Rodin in Paris.

Seeing two large paintings by Gustave Courbet was a personal treat. “A Burial at Ornans,” from 1848, was controversial in its subject matter. Convention dictated that large-scale works depict religious or allegorical subjects. Declaring, “Historical art is in its essence contemporary,” Courbet argued that paintings of ordinary people merited the large format.

His masterpiece, 1855’s “The Artist’s Studio” (main picture), reflects Courbet’s political and artistic choices. Its subtitle is “A real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life.” When it was refused by the Salon because of its size, Courbet organized a personal exhibition, in a building which he had built at his own expense which he called “The Pavilion of Realism,” close to the sanctioned exhibition.

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Gustave Courbet’s “A Burial at Ornans”

Courbet said, “It’s the whole world coming to me to be painted”, he declared, “on the right, all the shareholders, by that I mean friends, fellow workers, art lovers. On the left is the other world of everyday life, the masses, wretchedness, poverty, wealth, the exploited and the exploiters, people who make a living from death.” For an in-depth article on “The Artist’s Studio,” click here.

The museum’s website is as impressive as the museum itself, with descriptions of the works and their locations in the galleries. If a visit to the museum is not in your near future, the website offers a wonderful overview.

The Musée D’Orsay’s collection may be the most recognizable of any museum in the world. A visit should be on any art lover’s bucket list.

The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday and admission is 12 euros.

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All photos by Andy Coughlan 2017

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The Grand Tour II: The Louvre is a terrible museum!

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Old meets new at the Louvre

Paris — Got your attention? Of course, that headline is misleading. The Louvre has one of the greatest collections of art in the world. It has a history and cachet that makes it a required stop for any art lover visiting the French capital.

But it is so expansive that it is difficult to enjoy the visit and really appreciate the art. The paintings are hung sometimes four high on the walls, which makes the top ones impossible to look at because of the glare.

It is the largest museum in the world with 38,000 objects spread across 782,910 square feet. The museum site was originally a 12th-century fortress, before being expanded by Francis I to be a royal palace in 1546.

In 1692, the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres and the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, which occupied the building, hosted a series of salons beginning in 1699. During the French Revolution, which began in 1789, the National Assembly decreed that the Louvre be used as a museum. It opened Aug. 10, 1793 with an exhibition of 537 paintings, with the majority being confiscated royal and church property.

The now-famous glass pyramid was added in 1988 under a renovation plan proposed by President François Mitterrand.

The museum is home to so many iconic and historically important pieces that is it is ridiculous to suggest the museum is not great, but it is certainly unwieldy. With a bit of pruning it would be easier to navigate and easier to enjoy the works themselves. As it is, it is exhausting. Either one needs to hit a few targeted areas or take a day or two to navigate the vastness of the collection. The first option is preferable, but it’s not as though the average non-Parisian gets to pop off to the Louvre when they have a couple of hours to spare so a few things will have to be sacrificed.

Of course, there are the “rock stars,” Eugene Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People,” Théodore Gericault’s “Raft of the Medusa” are highlights that must be included in any tour, as is Jean-August-Dominique Ingres’ “Turkish Bath.” Among the antiquities is the Venus de Milo from the second century, and the Winged Victory of Samothrace, carved in 305 BC, which is genuinely awe-inspring.

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The ever-present scrum in front of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” at The Louvre.

No matter the time of day, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” attracts a seething throng of humanity. It is almost impossible to get a good look at it, as it is behind glass, behind a rope, 10-feet from the viewer, and behind an almost impenetrable wall of tourists all taking selfies.

A better choice would be to walk on by and get up close and personal with the master’s “The Virgin on the Rocks” or “The Virgin and Child With St. Anne” or “John the Baptist.” There is much less of a crowd and a better chance to see the techniques that cemented his reputation.

There is so much to see — too much — that the casual visitor should target particular areas and focus on specific things, otherwise “museum fatigue” sets in fast.

The Louvre is magnificent and totally worth a visit, but be aware that it is impossible to see it all in a day — or even a week. It’s a pick-and-choose experience.

The museum is open Mondays, Thursdays and weekends from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and on Wednesdays and Fridays from 9 a.m. to 9:45 p.m. The Louvre is closed on Tuesdays. Admission is 15 euros ($16.80) for adults and is free for visitors 17 years and younger.

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The Grand Tour II: Bright Light City

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Paris — “The City of Light” is an appropriate moniker. There are two reasons Paris earned its name — as one of the leaders of the Age of Enlightenment and also as one of the first cities to get gaslight. But there is a more obvious reason. Early in the morning or late in the afternoon, the city literally glows.

paris2The light seems to bounce off the buildings, not so sharp that one has to shield one’s eyes, but in a bright, diffused way that gives everything an ethereal shimmer. The main stone used in Paris’ construction from the 17th century on is Lutetien limestone, and that contributes to the light.

Georges-Eugene Haussmann was commissioned to renovate Paris by Napoleon III, and the Paris we see today stems from the public works project that began in 1853. He widened the streets and insisted on a uniformity to create a harmonious effect.

Most buildings in Paris prior to the renovation were made of brick or wood and covered with plaster. Haussmann demanded that the new boulevards be either built or faced with cut stone, usually Lutetien limestone (The name derives from Lutetia (French, Lutèce) which was the city’s name in ancient times). Haussmann also decreed that the facades be maintained, repainted, or cleaned, at least every 10 years, under threat of 100 francs.

The stone was extracted from the hills to the south of Paris by tunneling. The grey/cream stone was used in parts of the Place de la ConcordeLes Invalides and the Louvre.

The pastel stone gives the city a brightness that one does not find in London or New York and contributes to the personality of Paris — and major cities certainly have a personality.

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The Basilica du Sacré Couer just after sunset. Photo by Andy Coughlan

The sun does not set in the summer until after 9 p.m., and an early evening stroll along the Seine or around Montmartre is recommended. The perfect cap to the evening is to sit on the steps of the Sacré Coeur and watch the sunset.

Even at night there is a glow. Watch Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” and it is easy to think the magical quality is the product of movie magic, but it is not far from reality.

Nowadays, the “Paris stone” comes from half a dozen quarries in the Oise, 25 miles north of the city and is used in upscale building projects around the world, with the hard, sliceable version selling for 2,000 euros a cubic meter.

But while the stone is beautiful in itself, it is the rows of light-colored buildings that envelope the walker that creates the true effect. Paris is for lovers, the saying goes, and architecture that contributes to the romance.

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Skiffle: Music to ‘Bragg’ About

Review: ‘Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World’ by Billy Bragg

91pAfTDsSqLIn mid-1950s England, a type of music flared up, shone bright for a couple of years, then faded into obscurity as the juggernaut that was rock and roll swept away everything that had passed for popular music. But in his new book “Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World,” singer/songwriter Billy Bragg makes the case that the guitar-based, American folk and blues-influenced Skifflers paved the way for a generation of musicians to dominate the 1960s. Members of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Who and Led Zeppelin, to name just a few, got their start in the DIY Skiffle explosion.

Bragg writes that the Skiffle boom lasted only a couple of years, from 1954 to 1956-7, but in 400 compelling pages, he gives us not only insight into this brief period of time, but also a detailed overview of the history of American blues, folk and jazz.

Bragg is in a unique position to explore these topics, having come to prominence on the back of the punk explosion (after Skiffle, the second great British DIY musical movement), and having recorded Woody Guthrie songs. His musical heroes were influenced by Skiffle, and the stripped-down aesthetic of his early recordings fits the genre’s philosophy.

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Billy Bragg talks about “Roots, Radicals and Rockers” at the Strand Bookstore in New York, July 22, 2017. Photo by Andy Coughlan

So, what is Skiffle? Dictionaries define it simply as a musical genre with jazz, blues, folk and American folk influences, usually using homemade or improvised instruments. If a parallel could be drawn, one could say it is rockabilly meets folk with a slight rock twist. Drawing its roots from the blues house parties of Chicago, the music grew from the post-war Trad Jazz revival in England. Two figures tower over the narrative — the surly purist Ken Colyer, who joined the merchant navy so he could ship out to America to find his jazz heroes, and Lonnie Donegan, who became the first person to hit the British charts with the guitar as the lead instrument.

Donegan is the unchallenged “King of Skiffle,” dominating the charts in the mid-1950s with a series of covers of songs by Lead Belly and Guthrie. The Skiffle versions were more uptempo and Donegan, in a nasally whine, ramped the up speed as the song progressed. His version of “Rock Island Line” literally ends like a runaway train with a breathless Donegan spitting out the words. It is the punk of its day — an exciting change from the crooners and orchestras that dominated the radio airwaves. No wonder it attracted a newly defined group — teenagers — only just throwing off the yoke of post-war rationing, which did not end until 1954. A generation of young boys went out and bought guitars and claimed a music for themselves.

Bragg quotes a source who said guitar imports in 1956 were estimated to be a quarter of a million, as opposed to six thousand in 1950. At its height, there were between 30,000 and 50,000 Skiffle groups in England. They congregated in coffee shops and eschewed the restrictions of the mainstream airwaves to create their own scene. As usual, when the mainstream finally caught on, Skiffle was effectively over. But these teenagers took their guitars, went electric, added drums instead of washboards and rode the wave of rock to the top of the charts.

“Roots, Radicals and Rockers” is a fascinating read, chockfull of facts about a variety of topics from American railroads, Library of Congress Folkways recordings to riots at British screenings of “Rock Around the Clock.” The book will appeal to fans of the blues, jazz and folk on both sides of the Atlantic. Few recordings survive, but typing in names into YouTube is a great way to get a feel for the music that changed the British sound.

“Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World” by Billy Bragg, published by Faber and Faber, is available on Amazon in hardback for $23.95.

The Women Question at GSE

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Egon Schiele. Reclining Woman with Green Stockings (1917)

NEW YORK — It is hard to say who is my favorite visual artist — one might as well ask which is my favorite book, to which I reply that it depends on which day I am asked. Despite that, there are several that always appear on the list in some order – Paul Klee, Willem de Kooning, Caravaggio, Franz Kline, JMW Turner — see the list is endless. But I never miss a chance to see any show with drawings by Egon Schiele. Fortunately, I made it to New York the final week of “The Woman Question: Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka,” a small exhibition at the always-wonderful Galerie St. Etienne.

The gallery, not much larger than a reasonably-sized doctor’s waiting room, specializes in German and Austrian art. I make it a point to go every time I am in the city and I am never disappointed.

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“Pregnant Woman and Man” by Gustav Klimt

This show featured drawings and works on paper by the Austrian contemporaries. Of the three, Klimt has the highest profile with his sumptuously-patterned paintings — his painting of Adele Bloch-Bauer was the subject of the movie “The Lady in Gold” (one of his sketches for the painting is included in the show). His drawings are more immediate and show a different Klimt. His “Pregnant Woman and Man,” a 1903-04 drawing in blue crayon, is a beautifully rendered sketch that has intimacy and sweetness. “Standing Nude Girl With Bowed Head,” from 1902, is a demur side-view sketch of a young girl with a slightly protruding belly. There is a softness to the image, but her pose is deferential.

It should noted that the exhibition seeks to address fin-de-siecle Viennese intellectuals obsession with sex, and the Madonna/Whore question. There is an excellent essay on the gallery’s website which I encourage everyone to read. I am concerned here with the different styles of drawing among the three men.

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Nude by Oskar Kokoschka

Kokoschka is the more Expressionistic of the triumvirate, his paintings eschewing the slickness of his elder contemporary’s work. He did not have the classical training of Klimt, nor were his interactions with women as numerous as Klimt and Schiele who, the museum’s text argues, saw no difference between the roles of lover and model. Kokoschka had an affair with the most desirable woman in Vienna, Alma Mahler, wife of the composer Gustav.

Alma and Kokoschka’s first love, Lilith Lang, a fellow student at the Vienna Art School, were both above his station. His drawings of the women he loved were strangely aggressive and lack the smooth interpretation of Klimt.

The nude does not have the prominence in Kokoschka’s work that it does in Klimt or Schiele’s, and the musuem’s literature argues, “Fear of adult female sexuality continued to haunt Kokoschka’s later nudes, which are largely devoid of erotic appeal.”

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Two nudes by Egon Schiele

Schiele, on the other hand, is quite a different animal. His line work is immaculate, bold and sure-handed, and each individual line is thing of beauty that goes on and on, way past the point where a lesser artist has picked up his pencil. One can follow an unbroken line from the neck to the wrist, from the thigh to the ankle — and each new line crackles sensuously.

While these women were objectified under the male gaze, there is also a power that emanates from their gaze. The museum’s essay, “Schiele was only twenty when he executed his first artistically mature works, and emotionally he was still an adolescent. Simultaneously terrified and enthralled by the erotic potency of his lover/models, the artist granted the female nude an unprecedented degree of autonomy.”

Schiele has no equal when it comes to pure drawing. His nudes are contorted, and sometimes they are almost pornographic, yet they never lose their dignity under the artist’s gaze.

I have long been a fan of Schiele, whose output is as prolific as any in his short career (he died of pneumonia at 28). His drawings are magnificent, his paintings are gorgeous, and his line work is something I have, vainly, sought to emulate my entire artistic career.

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Elisabeth Lederer by Egon Schiele

The most striking of the images in the entire exhibition is, ironically, not a nude, but a simple drawing of Elisabeth Lederer, from a well-connected Vienna family, whom Klimt had introduced to Schiele after the latter’s arrest and jailing on pornography charges in an effort to rehabilitate his reputation.

The linework, of course, is immaculate. She stares out slightly to the right with a bold confidence, her expression almost mischievous. This is a woman who is feisty, strong, confident. The minimal coloring perfectly accentuates the features. It is a portrait of a woman whose sexuality derives directly from the strength of the gaze.

The exhibition, which is an abbreviated version of one which Galerie St. Etienne co-director Jane Kallir curated for the Belvedere Museum, Vienna, in 2015-16, offered a wonderful glimpse into the three contemporaries who were pivotal parts of the Vienna Seccessionist movement.

Klimt died in 1918 of a stroke, and Schiele and his pregnant wife died in the 1918 pneumonia epidemic. Kokoschka lived to 1980 and became a well-respected giant of expressionism. Klimt’s reputation was cemented as the century progressed and Schiele’s reputation has grown in leaps and bounds over the past quarter century.

The trio is worth discovering and a great start would be the catalogue for the show, which is $60 but is great value for the 231 full-color illustrations.

And Galerie St. Etienne, located at 24 West 57th Street in  New York, is a gem worth unearthing.

Daumier and the birth of political cartoons

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Honoré Daumier 1808-79

This past semester had the pleasure of teaching a class on the history of political cartoons at Lamar University. The old adage is that one never really knows a subject until one teaches it, and although I have been a professional editorial cartoonist for 27 years, I have been completely nerding out on research.

One of the pleasures is rediscovering Honoré Daumier. Every art history scholar knows the great Frenchman’s influence on the genre, but digging deeper into the body of work brings only more admiration. So, during a recent visit to north Texas I found myself at the Dallas Museum of Art for a small (13 pieces) exhibition of published cartoons — literally the pages from the original publications in the satirical newspaper Le Charivari, for whom Daumier contributed many of his best works.

Ddamoclese“The sword of Damocles,” from 1842, features the lines:

“You aren’t sorry to miss on this day

a knife in order to dine,

said the amiable tyrant. I say

said Damocles, if this is a pun

I find the point is not fine.”

The original Greek myth features the courtier Damocles who, hungry for power, begs to switch places with King Dionysus. However, he realizes that above the throne is a sword hanging by a single hair. Damocles realizes that with power comes responsibility and danger. Daumier’s image is a commentary about censorship at a time when it hanged over artists and writers like the sword of Damocles. This ran in the satirical publication Le Charivari.

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Les Femmes Socialistes

“Insurrection Against Husbands is Proclaimed as Being the Finest and Holiest Duty in Life!” from 1849, features three women, their hands placed over a man’s top hat as they make an oath. Daumier was not a fan of the feminist movement and the caption pokes fun at the women’s “primary duty” to rise up against their husbands. This also appeared in Le Charivari. Daumier tended to make fun of the movement’s leaders by presenting the as unattractive. This was a theme that was continued during the British and American suffrage movements of the early 20th century. As radical and influential as Daumier was in his attacks on oppressive government, he was, after all, also a man of his times.

DhelenOne of my favorites is “The Abduction of Helen of Troy.” Daumier takes the classic myth and turns it in its head, depicting Helen as being neither beautiful nor particularly frail. In fact, she is carrying the fey Paris to the ships. The image was printed in Le Charivari in 1842 as a response to a heated debate between the painters of the classical and neoclassical schools. The conflict between the schools of thought was a theme to which Daumier returned several times. The piece also reflects current affairs, with Helen representing the Greek people and Paris looking similar to Count Antonios Kapodistrias, a Greek diplomat who served as foreign minister of the Russian empire and was the first leader of the modern independent Greek state.

Dwill“The Reading of the Will,” published in Le Charivari in 1853, is one of seven pieces that form “The Human Comedy” series. On the surface it is simply a collection of family members who are gathered at the solicitor’s office. The beauty of the work is the distinctive faces that capture the various levels of expectation. Only the bowed head of the young boy indicates grief.

When Daumier’s was a boy he clerked at a courthouse. The rest of his career he produced many works that expressed his distaste for the legal profession, most notably his “Lens de Justice” series of drawings and sculptures. “Old Scoundrel” continues this theme, showing two lawyers who look at each other knowingly, as if they have colluded for a deal that benefits themselves rather than their clients. This was published in La Caricatura in 1839.

Dexposition“I Have Been Accepted … They Do Have Taste/I Have Been Rejected … What Cretins,” is one of Daumier’s commentaries on the art world. Daumier studied at the Paris Academy but ultimately rejected what he considered the elitism of academia in favor of art for the masses. Daumier fully expresses his rejection of the Salon mentality with a piece that shows a man pointing at a painting and saying, “Just look what a degenerated and corrupt universe we are living in! … all these people just look at more or less monstrous paintings and not one of them stops in front of a painting depicting the beauty and purity of nature!” The establishment that the Salon typified favored “history” paintings over landscapes. They were thought to be more intellectually skillful and educational.

DsalonDaumier was certainly a progressive who pushed social causes and poked fun at the establishment — he was even imprisoned for his cartoon “Gargantua,” which portrayed King Louis Phillippe.

Daumier the caricaturist is a pioneer of political cartooning — much admired and rarely bettered.

‘Mourning For Zapata’

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Marin’s sculpture captures spirit of culture

DALLAS — It is always enjoyable to see a giant exhibition that is a survey of a time, place or culture. But it is an even greater pleasure to find a single piece that excites and inspires.

Such is the case with Francisco Arturo Marin’s “Mourning For Zapata,” part of the exhibition “México 1900–1950: Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Clemente Orozco, and the Avant-Garde,” at the Dallas Museum of Art through July 16.

It is a simply stunning sculpture, made of veined black Veracruz marble, which draws on Aztec traditions. It is beautifully evocative vision of grief, as the six figures carry the limp body of the revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, the main leader of the peasant revolution in the state of Morelos, Mexico.

mayanThe figures have the classic indigenous look of Mexican art, and also have disproportionately large hands and feet — reminiscent of Pablo Picasso’s figures that suggest sturdy peasant stock.

There is a literal and figurative weight to the piece as the slumped corpse bends the group who carry it, weighed down by their sorrow.

The six figures are each individually addressed, with stunning detail put into the hands, feet and faces. There is an echo of Rodin’s “The Burghers of Calais,” with the figures bowed by an equal amount of pain and loss.

The smoothness of the male figures naked torsos is contrasted by the brushed texture of the women’s dresses. The lifeless Zapata is also covered by the same texture, as if wrapped in a burial shroud.

The whole composition is a cube of death and grief, as though the whole world has shrunk to this small group. In reality, Zapata was gunned down by government troops in 1919 after he was betrayed. His body was photographed to prove he was dead, displayed for 24 hours and then buried. There was no funeral parade, so Marin’s sculpture is an elegy to the myth of Zapata that still resonates today.

“Mourning For Zapata,” created in 1957, is a powerful symbol of pride in heritage, culture and the working man.

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