Friday, December 10, 2010

Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Beyond

We saw the second exhibition from the Musée d'Orsay today at the DeYoung Museum. We saw the first one last summer.  I can't recommend it strongly enough, there are some astounding works on display.  The most fascinating part of it was watching the slow change in styles across both shows. 

The first show started with the classic "Academy" style, where the art authorities said, this is what you have to paint and this is how it has to look.  Then it moved on to the Impressionists, who said, we want to paint what we see.

The second show begins as the Pointillist style developed, based on scientific color theory:  science says that if we paint in this way, our paintings will glow!  The weird thing about that was that, with one exception, every Pointillist piece I saw there appeared absolutely static, no sense of motion at all, even in a painting which showed a skirt blowing in the wind.  Only Théo van Rysselberghe's Man at the Tiller gave me an actual sense of motion.  (If you look it up on line, be aware that the colors do not reproduce correctly!)  Still, a woman told me that her husband felt that, when he walked past another Pointillist landscape, the light shifted with him.  Maybe that's what they were about.  But most of them didn't give me much sense of light direction.  There's a very short distance from some of the Pointillists to Roy Lichtenstein.

After the Pointillists they showed four little Toulouse-Lautrecs. I generally like Toulouse-Lautrec, but wasn't terribly impressed with the one they chose to put in the audio tour.  I was blown away by one that wasn't:   Woman in a Black Boa!  Fabulous portrait of an amazing face!

Then we came to Van Gogh, who of course was in a class entirely by himself!  I see him as the extreme extension of the Impressionists rather than a "post" movement, but what do I know?  From Van Gogh they move to Cezanne and then Gauguin, both of whom quit trying to paint what they saw and began interpreting what they saw in terms of shapes, masses, and blocks of increasingly pure color.  A group following Gauguin worked from Pont-Aven and developed a style that looks cartoonish to modern eyes - static, stylized forms, pure unshaded colors.

After the Pont-Aven school the exhibition moves to the Nabis and their Symbolist movement.  The Nabis considered themselves a secret society, and their paintings were moving toward abstraction.  Frankly, I thought they came across as rather full of themselves.  One or two pieces reminded me of William Morris' romantic pseudo-medieval imagery. By now we're a very long way from those Academy portraits, and the artists are just experimenting to see what they can do.

The exhibition ends with two astounding Henri Rousseau pieces I hadn't seen before (War and Snake Charmer), and at least one painting I can't believe was ever hung in public in 1900 - Man and Woman, by Pierre Bonnard - both nude in a bedroom!  The early 20th century accepted nude women, but not nude men with nude women!  Finally, some of the Nabi painters moved into pure decoration, painting big panels and murals for private houses. 

It was a fascinating exhibition, and I just wanted to put down some of my thoughts about it.  If you're in the San Francisco Bay Area and haven't see the show, it's well worth the trip.


  1. I've come more and more to think that perhaps we don't (or won't need to) see artworks in real space, given the increasingly accurate representations of them we're getting. But there are always exceptional instances. This is probably much more true of musical performance (as Glenn Gould believed), than of plastic form art.

    I remember seeing the Matisse/Picasso show at the Kimbell in Fort Worth in the mid-1990's, which absolutely blew me away--huge awesome works which could never be adequately represented by any "media." The other was the Pollock show at the Tate when we were last in London--the intensity and weirdness of his color palette--qualities I can't imagine being reproduced with any fidelity. Also, there, there's a huge Pre-Raphaelite painting of one of those gorgeous nature nymphs, lying in a rich green pool of water in an obscure forest, which they've hung way up near the ceiling, so she floats up there, like some apparition in a dream.

    If you want a sense of my fascination, check out the movie version of A.S. Byatt's Possession. (I didn't finish the novel, but the movie's good all by itself.) It's too bad that we don't want our women completely "dressed up" anymore. Now, everyone is supposed to be less and less attired, for whatever reason. The elegance and sensuality of clothing--we just don't have that pleasure. Velvet. Seersucker. Gabardine. Wool. It was all very "heavy" and so forth, but dressing up...

  2. Anonymous7:55 PM

    "The elegance and sensuality of clothing" I would add potential to your quite appealing statement, Curtis. I agree that those are the two potentialities that are frequently absent in most of the clothing I see. And I have to agree that less is certainly not more even as regards sensuality.

    Thoroughly enjoyed this piece, hedera. I had fun imagining what you saw.

    Anonymous David