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Adventures in Modern Art

Gustave Courbet, L'origine du monde, 1866, Musée d'OrsayAs part of our trip to Paris last week, we spent Wednesday morning with the students in the Musée d'Orsay, although we did not take them into the big exhibit there, Cézanne and Pissarro: 1865-1885. The older students, having survived my Humanities class, recognized many of the big paintings we study in class: Edouard Manet's Olympia (1863) and Le déjeuner sur l'herbe (1863), Renoir's Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette, Montmartre (1876), Van Gogh's L'église d'Auvers-sur-Oise, vue du chevet (1890), Millet's The Angelus (1857-59) and Les glaneuses (1857), and many others we had just finished studying. I snuck away to see Gustave Courbet's L'origine du monde (shown here) at one point, although some of the students also found it on their own when we gave them some free time in the museum. Damnable freedom!

I also led a small group of students to the Palais de Tokyo, where the long-expected reopening of the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris finally happened last month. After being in a museum all morning, I thought that I might be able to keep the students there for an hour or two. Much to my surprise and delight, they asked if we could stay until the museum closed at 6 pm, which of course we did. In fact, this excellent museum is flooded with young people, mostly French, a sight that did my heart good. I spent much of the time in the stunning main exhibit, Pierre Bonnard: L’oeuvre d’art, un arrêt du temps, which I will review separately.

Raoul Dufy, La fée électricité, 1937However, the museum's main exhibit spaces, all renovated and clean, are remarkable to behold. If you walk up the stairs from the entrance, you go immediately to Raoul Dufy's immense mural La fée électricité, commissioned by the Compagnie Parisienne de Distribution d’Electricité, for one of the two halls of the Pavillon de l’Electricité et de la Lumière, built by Robert Mallet-Stevens, for the Exposition internationale in 1937. (The Palais de Tokyo itself was constructed as part of that event.) We were shocked that Dufy could have completed this vast set of panels (660 square meters) in just a few months. He did this with technological help, using a special painting medium created by a chemist, Jacques Maroger, and a projection system that allowed him to paint directly over images of his sketches. For all of its innovation, the mural is fairly traditional in composition, referring to similar large-scale works by Raphael, Michelangelo, and Ingres. It is the colors that make it so striking, as electrified as one could imagine.

Further upstairs is a multiwork installation by Pierre Huyghe called Celebration Park, on view until May 14. In this image, you can see the massive doors of the main installation, Gates (2006), that slide along and rotate on a pair of snaking tracks on the ceiling. Their path takes them and the viewer past the white neon maxims of Disclaimers (2006). These appear in French and English -- the artist was born and trained in France -- and are alternately humorous and bizarre. Also on view in the exhibit are Huyghe's two films, This is not a time for dreaming (2004) and A Journey that wasn’t (2006).

Henri Matisse, study for La Danse
Henri Matisse, La Danse, Paris version
The museum has devoted two vast rooms on the lower level to the panels of Matisse's great mural, La danse -- one for a massive study and the other for the so-called Paris version -- commissioned by Albert Barnes and now part of his infamous collection in Philadelphia. The colors in the Barnes mural ended up being similar to the Paris version shown here, but Matisse modified the forms significantly.

Christian Boltanski, Réserve du Musées des enfants, 1989The best part of the museum for the students was the sous-sol (the lower-lower level), which you access by a curving staircase into the depths from the middle of the lower floor. Here there were many of the museum's most recent acquisitions, strange installations and video presentations, which the students entered like a cave of mystery. I particularly enjoyed the two installations by Christian Boltanski. You can walk first into the room occupied by the Réserve du Musées des enfants (Extra collections of the Museum of Children, 1989), where the walls are filled with shelves of children's clothing. If you pass on to another room from there, you enter Boltanski's Les Abonnés du Téléphone (The telephone subscribers, 2004), a room filled with some 3,000 phone books from around the world.

Also on Ionarts:

Ionarts Goes to Artparis, Part 1 and Part 2 (March 24, 2006)

The Atomium, Brussels (February 21, 2006), on other buildings constructed for world's fairs

New Boltanski Show (February 1, 2005)

Musée d'Art Moderne Set to Reopen in Paris (February 24, 2005)

Taking the Veil: Annette Messager (July 10, 2004)
Christian Boltanski, Les Abonnés du Téléphone, 2004


Anonymous said...

Dear Dr. Downey,

As your Godmother I'm slightly disturbed by the first photo in this blog. However, as an art historian I'm proud that you are "expanding" your visual vocabulary. Being the snob that you are, I think the photo is overall hilarious and wonder if you might consider it for your upcoming Christmas card.

: ) M.E.

Charles T. Downey said...

I was shocked to my foundation to see the things they hang on the walls in French museums. Michelle, I assure you that that is a look of moral condemnation on my face. Courbet should be ashamed!

Mark said...

Ahhhh, I love that Courbet. You are one cool Professor Dr C.. I had expected more from the Dufy. The colors are great, but it seems to have been knocked off just for the occation.

jfl said...

Is he taking notes or directions on that picture??

Charles T. Downey said...

Making a sketch, of course!

Mark said...

I thought that was a bible.

jfl said...

I got a look into that book:

1.) Milk (2 quarts)

2.) Gillette Fusion (+ extra blades)

3.) Peaches (2lb)

4.) Remind self to maw lawn once back in DC

A good class excercise for the gifted would be to show them this picture and then come up with what you wrote into that book. Stimulates AT LEAST both halfs of the brain... and then some.

Anonymous said...

Dr.D, I guess...we couldn't do it all. I was wondering why I wasn't with you that day and forgot about my little cold and rather typical fascination with Van Gogh! Dang nature and thickly laid on paint! Your posts are vunderbar and I hope you do more!