ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

Finally! The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco announces a New Director, Colin Bailey, from the Frick Collection

Colin Bailey, deputy director and chief curator of the Frick Collection in New York, is the new director of the Fine Arts Museums in San Francisco.  He starts on June 1, 2013.

Colin Bailey, deputy director and chief curator of the Frick Collection in New York, is the new director of the Fine Arts Museums in San Francisco. He starts on June 1, 2013.

After much anticipation, The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF)  named its new director today, filling the position left vacant since the death of John Buchanan 15 months ago.  Colin Bailey, currently associate director and chief curator of the Frick Collection in Manhattan and a noted curator and award-winning author will step into the position on June 1, 2013.  Bailey was selected after an exhaustive year-long international search by a 13-member selection committee of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s Board of Trustees.  The announcement was made today at 1 p.m. at the de Young Museum at a highly attended press conference officiated by FAMSF president and board chair Diane B. Wilsey (Dede) with guest speaker San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee.  At today’s press conference it was made clear that Bailey will initiate a new mandate “moving beyond the museums’ reputation as a home for blockbuster exhibitions to focus more on its permanent collections.”

Diane B. Wilsey said of Bailey, who did not attend today’s press conference, “we all agree that Colin has the qualities that will elevate the museums to the next level.”  She added that Bailey will keep “the focus on curatorial excellence, art historical relevance, and continued service to our community.”   She also added that John Buchanan had been a lot of “fun to work with” and that that Colin was also “fun.”   

Wilsey’s camaraderie with the late Buchanan was legendary and the two, whom ARThound dubbed “the dynamic duo” were responsible for the coup that brought the celebrated French Impressionism shows to San Francisco in 2010. (Read about that here.)   

Mayor Ed Lee spoke enthusiastically of Bailey’s selection, acknowledging the difficulty of the search process and thanking the Board of Trustees.  In a video shown at the press conference, (watch it below), Bailey said the appointment is “a dream come true,” and his purpose in The City will be “to conserve, to show, to educate.”

Normally, ARThound does not repost news from other websites or journalists but Janos Gereben, emailed me his article for the The Examiner (sfexaminer.com) about today’s appointment of Bailey and his reporting on his salary is excellent.  Janos has written a series of articles leading up to today’s appointment, which can be found at www.sfexaminer.com.  He shared with me that he got Bailey’s earnings at the Frick using old-school reportage—he looked up his tax records which are publicly accessible.  Here then quoting Janos…

FAMSF president and board chair Diane B. Wilsey announcing the appointment of Colin Bailey as the new FAMSF director.  Wilsey has run the FAMSF since the death of John Buchanan 15 months ago.  Photo: Geneva Anderson

FAMSF president and board chair Diane B. Wilsey announcing the appointment of Colin Bailey as the new FAMSF director. Wilsey has run the FAMSF since the death of John Buchanan 15 months ago. Photo: Geneva Anderson

“From a small but world-renowned private institution, Bailey is moving to a San Francisco city government organization, which is responsible for the de Young and California Legion of Honor museums.  He will manage 550 employees, some on The City’s payroll, most paid by the nonprofit Corporation of the Fine Arts Museums (COFAM).  

Frick operates on a $22 million budget, has 330,000 visitors a year, against FAMSF’s 1.6 million visitors and $54 million operating budget.

Compensation, at least on paper, doesn’t reflect those differences in size: Bailey’s salary at the Frick was $235,000 in FY 2011, according to the latest IRS report available. 

His position here is “Director of Museums, City and County of San Francisco Classification 0963, Department Head III,” which has a base salary under $100,000; he is expected to receive additional funding and perks from private sources and COFAM.” 

Today’s press conference was scheduled for noon but began close to 1 p.m. due to late running Board of Trustees meeting, where Bailey was officially approved.  The scuttlebutt among the press, impatient for the show to get on, ran the gamut from speculation about the delay in announcing a new director to criticism of Wilsey’s leadership during the recent period of curator dismissals and staff resignations to the organization’s press relations team which has recently been in flux.  Several FAMSF curators were in attendance and they too seemed to eagerly await the announcement, one acknowledging that things had been “unsettled.”  

At the press conference, Wilsey explained that the board meeting was delayed until today, to give Bailey “the courtesy of talking his own [Frick] board, which he did yesterday.”  This, she said, enabled Bailey “to give proper notice.”   He will start at FAMSF on June 1, 2013.  She did not explain why the trustees’ meeting itself ran late. 

Colin Bailey, the new Director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in an introductory video screened at today’s press conference

More about Colin Bailey:  Born in London, Bailey earned his doctorate in art history at Oxford University. He specializes in 18th- and 19th-century French art, was named Chevalier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1994 for his contribution to French culture and was promoted to Officier in 2010. He also held a residency under Henri Loyrette, the former president and director of the Louvre in Paris. He has been chief curator of the Frick since 2000, when he narrowly lost the competition for the museum’s directorship. Previously, he worked at the Getty Museum, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Kimbell Art Museum, and the National Gallery of Canada, where he was deputy director and chief curator. He is returning to California 30 years after a fellowship at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu.

He has organized more than two dozen exhibitions, including the recent Renoir, Impressionism and Full-Length Painting at the Frick, many of which have represented new scholarship and have been praised for providing keen insights into individual artists. Other exhibitions include Masterpieces of European Painting from Dulwich Picture Gallery; Renoir’s Landscapes, 1865-1883; and Rembrandt and His School: Masterworks from the Frick and Bailey’s many publications include The Loves of the Gods: Mythological Painting from Watteau to David; Masterpieces of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: The Annenberg Collection; and Patriotic Taste: Collecting Modern Art in Pre-Revolutionary Paris, the book that won the Mitchell Prize.

Diane B. Wilsey and Colin B. Bailey, the new director of FAMSF, who will start June 1, 2013.  Photo: Bill Zemanek

Diane B. Wilsey and Colin B. Bailey, the new director of FAMSF, who will start June 1, 2013. Photo: Bill Zemanek

Colin Bailey and his partner will be spending the Easter holiday here in the Bay Area, having Easter dinner with Wilsey at her home and finalizing the signing on a spacious apartment that the couple will share with their dog.  Details on the dog to follow…

ARThound’s most recent coverage of the Frick Collection— ARThound in New York: A Dresden goldsmith and court jeweler works his magic and catalogues it in small booklets—“Gold, Jasper and Carnelian” at The Frick Collection through August 19, 2012

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March 27, 2013 Posted by | Art, de Young Museum, Legion of Honor | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Closing Sunday: “REAL TO REAL: Photographs from the Traina Collection,” at the de Young Museum

“Melissa” (2005, Chromogenic print, 50”h x 40”w) by American photographer Alec Soth is on display at the de Young Museum through September 16, 2012, as part of “Real to Real: Photographs from the Traina Collection.” The image was taken at the Flamingo Inn at Niagra Falls, the former honeymoon capital of the world, just after the woman, Melissa, was married. Image courtesy: Traina Collection.

An engaging and controversial show, Real to Real: Photographs from the Traina Collection is closing this Sunday, August 16, 2012, at San Francisco’s de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park.  Drawn from the impressive holdings of San Francisco native Trevor Traina, a member of the FAMSF Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco Board and the son of its President, Diane B. (Dede) Wilsey, the exhibition brings together rare black-and-white vintage prints of classic images by Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand with works in color by artists ranging from Stephen Shore and William Eggleston to Cindy Sherman, Alec Soth and Andreas Gursky.

How the mix of 110 images, produced by some of the pre-eminent artists working in photography from the 1950s has to the present, qualified as a major exhibition at the museum has been a source of controversy.  Some Bay Area art critics have suggested that it was improper protocol to give museum space to someone so closely connected with the internal politics of the museum.

When Fine Arts Museum director John Buchanan passed in December 2011, Mrs. Wilsey stepped up to run things until a suitable new director could be found and six months later her son has a prominent show in the museum.  It might look cozy but, so far, no one has come up with any rules that were violated.  The show, which examines different historical understandings of Realism and its changing definitions over time, was curated jointly by Art Historian Kevin Moore, who served as an advisor to Traina on the collection, and Founding Curator of Photography and Chief Administrative Curator at the Fine Arts Museums Julian Cox.

Photography has not been considered “fine art” until fairly recently by the FAMSF according to Mrs. Wilsey, who spoke at the exhibition’s press conference in June about the history of photography and the museum’s long lack of wall space devoted to the medium.  Now, things have changed and the museum is welcoming photography, with Julian Cox proudly at the helm.  Cox states, “It was Alfred Stieglitz who, a century ago, campaigned in support of photography’s expressive possibilities independent from other visual arts, because he believed the medium to be endowed with what he described as “a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality.”

Most of us are moved by photography because it provides us with a myriad of possibilities to understand our lives through the power of images.  The Traina collection includes some well-known icons as well as powerful works by emerging and experimental young photographers.  Notes Cox, “The Traina collection includes many images that sit firmly within the tradition of photography as a craft and a vocation, alongside those made by artists who consider photography as just one medium among others from which they can select to communicate an idea. This use of photography within conceptual art has been at the center of Traina’s most recent activity as a collector, and it brings the exhibition fully into the contemporary moment with new works by artists such as Roe Etheridge, Christopher Williams and Ryan McGinley.

Traina said, “There are often photography shows of one artist or one period. What makes this show special is that it traces an idea — the evolution of the documentary tradition and the maturation of the photographic medium — across almost seven decades. The evolution of color photography and the huge glossy prints that sit next to their pristine black and white antecedents are really fun to see.”

Catalogue: An accompanying 136-page catalogue, Real to Real: Photographs from the Traina Collection (2012, $45) features over 85 plates and includes a foreword and introduction by Curator Julian Cox and an essay by art historian Kevin Moore.

Details:  Real to Real: Photographs from the Traina Collection closes Sunday, September 16, 2012. The de Young Museum is located in Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco.  The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m.; Fridays (through November 23, 2012) until 8:45 p.m. and is closed Mondays.  For information about museum hours and ticket prices, call (415) 750-3600 or visit www.deyoungmuseum.org .

September 15, 2012 Posted by | Art, de Young Museum | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Smart marketing: the de Young Museum’s foray into pay-per-view–hook ‘em by streaming a sold-out Balenciaga Symposium and later they will visit

Cristóbal Balenciaga, Cocktail hat of ivory silk satin, 1953. Originally published in Vogue, October 15, 1953. Photo: John Rawlings.

This Saturday, for the first time ever, viewers will be able to take in a long sold-out Balenciaga symposium at San Francisco’s de Young Museum without leaving their homes.  The museum is streaming the Balenciaga and Spain Symposium live at 1 p.m. and for $10 viewers can watch the simulcast on Fora.TV and access it as many times as they want until July 4, when the exhibition closes.  The move to pay-per-view makes good business sense for the museum, currently the 5th most highly attended museum in the country and known for its progressive and immensely popular shows.  

“Pay per view is the greatest way to make our collections and special exhibitions available and accessible to as many people as possible and that’s what we’re all about—education and illumination,” said John Buchanan, director FAMSF.  “We have these scholars and resources here and sharing the word in this streaming fashion geometrically multiples our audience and it will get people to come in and see the real thing.  Streaming is a logical and profitable step.”  For those of us who live in the extended Bay Area, this appetite whetter may just the enticement we need to cross the bridge for culture.  For those more distant, it puts the show and the museum high on to-do lists.  Win-win.

Museums are the newest entrants to the streaming and HD-live craze that has paid off big for the Metropolitan Opera which began simulcasting six of its operas in 2007 in select movie theatres across the country and hit pay dirt.  As Peter Gelb, the company’s managing director, stated in the New York Times (May 17, 2007) the number of people who attended Met Live performances during the first season of the program, 324,000 at $18 a piece, led him to believe that the audience for the second year of the program would reach 800,000 and actually match the audience attending the two hundred plus performances in the actual Met auditorium.  He called the simulcasts “a powerful marketing tool.”   In 2010, Gelb reported that, for 2010, 2.4 million people in 1,500 theatres in 46 countries bought tickets to the series for a gross of $47 million.  Half of that went to expenses, but still left a hefty and unheard of profit.  Gelb also reported that the series has had an enormous impact on donations, adding almost 7,000 donors to the list of Met contributors in recent seasons.  

“Embracing new technology is something we’re very proud,” said Buchanan.  “When images from museum first went online, people in the museum world were saying that people would stop coming to museums.  In fact, that proved very false and it lured people in to the museums.  This is going to have the same impact.”     

Hamish Bowles, European editor at large, Vogue, and guest curator of Balenciaga and Spain is participating in the de Young's first live streaming of a symposium this Saturday. Photo by Arthur Elgort.

For museum-goers and even those unfamiliar with the museum world, a simulcast featuring the trend-setting and enormously popular Vogue editor Hamish Bowles talking about Balenciaga might just take off big.  Bowles guest curated  Balenciaga and Spain and has already made a number of media appearances since he arrived in the Bay Area last week.  The museum’s auditorium can seat an audience of 270 and the event sold out within an hour reported the FAMSF’s communications department.  The FORA.tv option immediately makes the event accessible to an unlimited audience who can access the event at their leisure.   The de Young Museum is already one of the highest profile museums in the country.  Since it’s re-do six years ago, the latest statistics, current to 2010, show that it has attracted over 8 million visitors, and The Art Newspaper has ranked it as the 5th most highly attended museum in the country.  Pay per view could bolster its popularity, especially if the programming has the popular (and non-academic) appeal of fashion. 

Under the helm of FAMSF Director John Buchanan and FAMSF Board Chair De De (Diane) Wilsey, the de Young Museum has expanded its offerings to  a number of tremendously popular shows addressing fashion–Nan Kempner: American Chic (2007), Vivien Westwood: 36 Years in Fashion (2007),  Yves Saint Laurent (2008).  Its sister institution, the Legion of Honor, has done the same and is currently offering Pulp Fashion: The Art of Isabelle de Borchgrave through June 5, 2011.  “I firmly believe that if you buy the best that money can buy and you show the best there is to show, people will come,” said De De Wilsey.  “Fashion and art are completely intertwined and it’s been my mission to show people the very best art.  The very best designers are true artists.”

Saturday's live streamed symposium will discuss Spanish influences on Balenciaga such as painter Diego Velazquez. His portrait of the Infanta Maria-Margarita, daughter of Felipe IV, King of Spain inspired Balenciaga's famous Infanta dress. Photo: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY.

Saturday’s symposium will examine the underlying themes in Balenciaga and Spain which kicks off with a gala on Thursday and opens to the public this Saturday and runs through July 4, 2011.  The highly anticipated exhibition focuses on the remarkable oeuvre of Spanish haute couture designer Cristóbal Balenciaga.  His now iconic “balloon” skirt, “baby doll” and “sack” dresses, the 7/8-length “bracelet sleeve,” and the “dropped waist” created a new silhouette for women.  Born in 1895 in a remote fishing village in Spain, Balenciaga learned sewing and tailoring at his mother’s knee.  From this humble start, the persistent young man, opened his own fashion house in Paris in 1937 where he was greeted with immediate success.  In the years following World War II, he became one of the most influential haute couture fashion designers.   Balenciaga was a sculptor with a strong and unique vision who worked with space, the female body and fabric.  Balenciaga and Spain features nearly 120 haute couture garments, hats, and headdresses designed by Balenciaga, some of which have never been seen before.  This exhibition, conceived by American fashion designer Oscar de la Renta for a show last fall at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute in New York, will be nearly twice as large at the de Young  and it includes 17 pieces from the private collection of Hamish Bowles.   The exhibition explores Balenciaga’s expansive creativity and is the first to focus on the impact of Spain’s art, bullfighting, dance, regional costume, and the pageantry of the royal court and religious ceremonies.  Pieces were selected from Balenciaga’s archives in France, private collections, the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, as well as from the FAMSF’s immense collection of over 12,000 textiles.

Symposium Speakers: 

Hamish Bowles, “Balenciaga and Spain: Cristóbal Balenciaga and the Power of the Spanish Identity”  Hamish Bowles, fashion journalist, is the European editor at large for the American edition of Vogue. A graduate of the Saint Martin’s School of Art and Design, Bowles worked as a fashion editor and style director for Harpers and Queen from 1984 until 1992 and then joined Vogue in 1992.

Balenciaga’s sketch for his "Infanta" evening dress clearly shows the influence of Diego Velazquez’s Portrait of the Infanta Maria-Margarita (circa 1665); from Vogue Magazine (September 15, 1939). Carl Erickson/Conde Nast Archive; © Conde Nast.

Bowles is author and co-author of several books including Vogue Living: Houses, Gardens, People; Philip Treacy: “When I Met Isabella”; and Carolina Herrera: Portrait of a Fashion Icon.  He also served as curator for the landmark exhibition Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years and as guest curator for Balenciaga and Spain.

Miren Arzalluz, “Cristóbal Balenciaga. The Making of the Master (1895–1936)”
Miren Arzalluz studied History at the University of Deusto (Spain) and Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics before specializing in the history of dress and fashion at the Courtauld Institute of Art. After working in various British museums, such as the V&A and Kensington Palace, she became curator at the Balenciaga Foundation in 2007. Her research covers the history of fashionable dress on the 20th century with particular emphasis on the life and work of Balenciaga. She has recently published the book Cristóbal Balenciaga. La Forja del Maestro (1895–1936), which focuses on the life and professional development of Balenciaga before establishing his haute couture house in Paris, and she is currently working on the permanent exhibition and catalogue of the new Balenciaga Museum project in Getaria, the couturier´s hometown.

Lourdes Font, “Austere Splendor: Balenciaga’s Legacy of Spanish Court Costume”
This talk is a survey of costume at the Spanish court from the late 15th c. to the late 18th c. as seen in royal and aristocratic portraits,  making connections with surviving garments and accessories and tracing the influence of this legacy on Balenciaga’s designs.
Lourdes Font is associate professor in the department of History of Art and in the M.A. program for Fashion and Textile Studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Among her recent publications are Fashion and Visual Art.  Font is the co-editor of and contributor to the Grove Dictionary of Art Online. She has also contributed articles and essays to West 86: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture, to the Cooper-Hewitt Museum’s exhibition catalogue Fashion in Colors, and to Fashion Theory.

Balenciaga's "Infanta" evening dress; 1939. Photograph by George Hoyningen-Huene. © R.J. Horst. Courtesy Staley/Wise Gallery, NYC.

Pamela Golbin, “Balenciaga’s Designs and Development (1937–1968)”
Pamela Goblin, chief curator of the Musée de la Mode et du Textile at the Louvre in Paris, is an internationally renowned figure in the fashion industry with extensive historical knowledge of cultural and design issues. She is a leading expert in contemporary fashion and has organized landmark exhibitions worldwide. Ms. Golbin has organized more than fifteen exhibitions, including major retrospectives on iconic fashions legends such as Balenciaga and Valentino. Her latest exhibition was an award-winning retrospective of Madeleine Vionnet.

To sign up for the Balenciaga and Spain symposium, click here and you will be directed to the FORA.tv’s webpage.  The pay-per-view symposium streams live this saturday at 1 PM and is available for unlimited viewing until the exhibition closes.

Details: The de Young Museum is located at 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA.  Admission to Balenciaga and Spain is $25 adults and free for members and children 5 and under.  There is a $5 discount for purchasing tickets in advance.  Ticket includes admission to the special exhibition Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico through May 8, 2011. 

For a complete listing of the numerous special events associated with the exhibition visit its webpage Balenciaga and Spain.

March 23, 2011 Posted by | Art, de Young Museum | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Final Week: de Young Museum “Birth of Impressionism,” the first of two unique Musée d’Orsay shows that bring Paris right to Our Doorstep

The Fifer. 1866. Édouard Manet (1832-1883). Oil on canvas, 63 3/8 x 38 1/4 inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowsk

Every era has its radicals– those who challenge the entrenched status quo, usher in sweeping change, and, finally, are upstaged themselves.  For the past 3 months, the de Young Museum has explored those early independent Impressionist painters who broke the rules of academic painting and shocked the conservative mid-19th century French art scene with a scandalous infusion of light and color.  The early Impressionists set entirely new standards for how artists saw and depicted nature and subsequently, they have influenced generations of artists.   “Birth of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay,” now in its final week, presents a remarkable group of nearly 100 mid to late 19th century paintings, some well-known, others not, that showcase the antecedents of Impressionism.  The works are from Paris, from the Musée d’Orsay, the former Beaux-Arts railway station on the left bank of the Seine that was converted into a museum by architect Gae Aulenti some 25 years ago and is currently being refurbished for its silver anniversary.    

The back story on how they came to the de Young is that Dede Wilsey (FAMSF Board Chair) and John Buchanan (FAMSF Director) were attending the auction for  Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge’s estate in Paris in February 2009 and over dinner learned from Musée d’Orsay Director, Guy Cogeval, that the museum needed a safe place to stash its Impressionist treasures while the plaster and dust were flying.  The duo politely pounced and Cogeval invited them to select what they wanted of Orsay museum treasures eligible to leave the country.   They choose about 240 works in two days and the details—the thematic split into two shows, transport, financial and insurance issues– fell into place over the coming year.   The De Young is the only museum in the world that will likely ever have two consecutive special exhibitions from the Musée d’Orsay of Impressionist art of this caliber which attests to its glowing stature in the museum world and our good luck.      

This first exhibition, co-curated by FAMSF’s Dr. Lynn Federle Orr, PhD, Curator of European Art, begins with paintings by naturalist artists such as Bougereau and Courbet, the great symbolist painter Gustave Moreau and includes early works by Manet, Monet, Renoir and Sisley as well as a selection of Degas’ paintings that depict images of the ballet, the racetrack and life in “la Belle Époque.”  The second show, “Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay,” (September 25 – January 18, 2011)  will present 120 of the Musée d’Orsay’s most famous late Impressionist paintings, including those by Monet and Renoir, followed by the more individualistic styles of the early modern masters including Cézanne, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Van Gogh, and the Nabi painters Bonnard and Vuillard.  

Those expecting something as straightforward as the museum’s last blockbuster, “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs” will be challenged in the very best sense of the word.  This is an academic and probing look at the various roots of Impressionism rather than a line-up of immediate wows.  The show is also beautifully presented—exquisitely lit and hung (lower than usual) and actually shows these works to better advantage than the (pre-renovation) Orsay ever did with its whitish walls and harsh lighting environment.   The de Young’s special configurable exhibition walls, have been organized into nine small galleries or salons painted in specially-selected rich dark hues ranging from a Venetian red, to rich taupe to velvety Seminole brown which complements the artworks and adds atmosphere all along the way.    

Conceptually, the show succeeds in illuminating a messy topic—the many factors that contributed to and ran along side of the birth of Impressionism.   Salon painting has been combined with modernity in all aspects—Manet from the 1860’s, the Ecole de Batignolles, the beginnings of Symbolist art, and the influence of modernization. The show also points to the French state’s success in its 19th century collecting practices—several of these masterpieces were acquired directly from the artists at the time.  

Birth of Venus. 1879. William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905). Oil on canvas, 9 ft. 10 1/8 inches x 7 ft. 5/8 inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski

This is not the de Young’s first stab at this topic.  In April-July, 1986, in collaboration with the National Gallery of Art, the de Young Museum under curator Charles Moffett, brought together about 150 works from collections all over the world and presented them as they were first seen in the Impressionist movement’s original eight shows. That remarkable assemblage of works, “The New Painting: Impressionism 1874-1886,” was immensely popular and this current exhibition draws heavily on that scholarship.  

The Salon

The show begins with an exploration of 19th century painting styles emerging from the dictatorial government-sponsored Salon.  The early Impressionist artists all called France home during the mid-19th Century and competed with each other for an exhibition place at the annual Salon, the only juried exhibition of new painting and sculpture in Paris.  Acceptance in this official yearly salon was the gateway to financial success but the Impressionist artists sought to circumvent the Salon and its stifling rules and stage their own shows and sell their own works.   The Salon’s taste ran to “la grande peinture” or “le peinture d’ histories”–elevated historical, religious, or mythological themes derived from the study of ancient and Renaissance art with an underlying moral purpose.   Subcategories include nudes (always in an allegorical context), Orientalism (fueled by artists traveling to exotic outposts) and battle paintings (inspired by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 that inspired younger artists to tackle the subject).  With the emergence of photography, these topics began to wane as the public’s interest in realism was peaked. 

William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s famed “The Birth of Venus,” 1879, dominates the entire first gallery.  A textbook example of classical 19th century academic painting, the allegorical piece does not depict Venus’ actual birth from the sea, rather her transport in a shell, (metaphor for the vulva) from the sea to Paphos on Cyprus.  The fleshy Venus, executed in milky hues, is flanked by adoring mythological cherubs and centaurs.  The painting encapsulates what irked the Impressionists most about the painting of the day—false sentiment, mythological content removed from reality and its hallmark “licked finish,” a process codified by the French Academy whereby the surface of painting was smoothed so much that presence of the artist’s hand was no longer visible.   

Galatea. Circa 1880. Gustave Moreau (1826-1898), Oil on wood, 33 5/8 x 26 3/4 inches, RMN (Musée d'Orsay) /René-Gabriel Ojéda

Notable in the second gallery, “The Salon” is symbolist painter Gustave Moreau’s “Galatea,” circa 1880,  a work with an intoxicating dream quality and a spectacular etched surface treatment making it appear that little jewels have been set into the canvas.  Moreau  shared with the Impressionist artists that followed a highly experimental use of paint, tone, color and a lack of regard for socially accepted themes.  A nude nymph sits languidly in a sensual grotto that is adorned with a profusion of anemones, corals and flora and she is spied upon by a three-eyed monster.  This picture is based on a story from Greek mythology, about the unrequited love of the Cyclops, Polyphemus, for the Nereid, Galatea who loved the shepherd Acis.  Stéphane Guégan curator, Musee d’Orsay, told me that this oil on panel piece should not really have been lent because of its extreme fragility.  Galatea triumphed at the 1880 French Salon.  The show also includes Moreau’s “Jason,” 1865, another icon of French symbolism that was exhibited at the Salon of 1865 (and harshly criticized) and bought by the French state in 1875. 

As you wander through the 9 galleries, you will see that some of the paintings have a protective “cason,” a glass covering that ensures a temperature and humidity- controlled environment especially important for panel (wood) paintings.  Musee d’Orsay curator Alice Thomine-Berrada explained that a Musee d’Orsay conservator came especially from Paris and stayed for one week, inspecting, cleaning and repairing works and their fragile frames after their travel to San Francisco.   In some cases, the results were astonishing– Berthe Merisot’s beloved work “The Cradle” was very dark before leaving Paris, so dark that the hair of the baby was not visible.  After its varnish was cleaned, and in the well-lit de Young gallery, the painting’s fine details stand out.  

Another thing you will notice is a profusion of very ornate gilded and carved frames which, to our modern eye, are distracting, particularly so with the works of Cezanne and Monet, where they seem to intrude into the canvas.   According to Musee d’Orsay curator Alice Thomine-Berrada, these frames reflect the bourgeoisie taste of the day and have been coupled with the paintings for so long that they are considered part of the artwork.   “We all have the idea that the Impressionists were revolutionary but after 10 years or so they were deeply appreciated and the bourgeoisie loved and bought their paintings.  In order to fit into the ornate style of their apartments, the paintings were put in these frames.” 

General Prim. October 8 1868. 1869. Henri Regnault (1843-1871). Oil on canvas. 124 x 102 inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski

The Impact of War 

The third gallery entitled “The Terrible Year” refers to two dramatic French military defeats in 1870-71 that devastated French moral and affected artists directly, many of whom enlisted and some fled.  At the Salon of 1872, over 30 artists showed works directly related to war.   “Juan Prim,” Henri Regnault’s superb life-size 1869 portrait of General Prim and his gorgeous black steed is a stand-out.   While making a tour in Spain, Regnault observed the general, the hero of the hour, in action, and created the memorable image of the general as a military demagogue amidst the backdrop of his troops.  Although Prim commissioned the portrait, he was not satisfied with it and refused to accept it.  The work had tremendous appeal with the public though and was a great success at the Salon of 1869.  As a prized artist, Regnault was exempt from military duty but he was dedicated and volunteered to serve in one of the last battles of the Franco-Prussian war and was killed at age 27. 

Manet 

 “French painters and Spanish Style,” the next salon, illuminates how Spanish painters, in particular Diego Velázquez and Francisco Jose de Goya, influenced the early Impressionists, especially Édouard Manet, a focal artist in this exhibition.  The following gallery is devoted entirely to Manet and his notable exploits with the Salon which continued until his death.  Even as a young artist, Manet’s innovative style tended to bold strokes and unexpected contrasts and his subject matter was unconventional in that it rejected the Salon’s established hierarchy of genres (history paintings and allegory at the top and still life and landscape at the bottom) and focused on more ordinary but provocative subjects–prostitutes and debauched drinkers.  The Salon would not accept this and slapped him down at every opportunity.    

Manet’s first submission to the Salon in 1859, “The Absinthe Drinker,” despite its fashionable Spanish resonance (the current Empress, Euginie, wife of Emperor Napoleon III was of Spanish origin), was rejected for its traditional full-length portrait configuration devoted to a socially marginalized individual.    His extraordinary works Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (1862-63) and the tantalizing Olympia (1863) (not in the show because they are not allowed to leave France) were also subsequently rejected for their deviation from accepted artistic convention and their scandalous low-life subject matter.   Despite repeated official rejection, Manet sought acceptance from the Salon while clinging to his friend Baudelaire’s advice…to depict a contemporary realism, to be “le peintre de la vie moderne.”    He never exhibited with his Impressionist friends but influenced them heavily.   Early in his career, and ahead of Impressionism, Manet found a way of working that addressed their polemic–the revolt against academic rules and the application of pictorial means to contemporary subject matter.   

Manet’s “The Fifer,” (1866) singled out for the exhibition poster, at first appears as direct as the young boy in uniform staring out at us from his portrait but it exemplifies the eerie complexity of Manet.  The boy’s recognizable stance seems to be derived from a French tarot card.  He is positioned and playing his flute against the backdrop of flat gray void that seems to both make him stand out and to engulf him in silent emptiness.  How can he ever be heard?  Who will hear him?  In this work, as in others, Manet delves deep into the human psyche, to a place of discomfort, evoking a complex confrontation with the hidden.  Whether it’s “The Fifer,” “Woman with Fans” (1873), or “A Bar at the Folies-Bergere” (1882), we project onto their staid silence.     

Bazille’s Studio. 1970. Fredéric Bazille (1841-1870). Oil on canvas. 38 5/8 x 50 5/8 inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski

Musee d’Orsay curator Alice Thomine-Berrada’s argues in the exhibition catalogue that Manet, while supportive towards the Impressionist movement, cultivated a unique style that remained distinct from Impressionism.  (“Manet: Between Tradition and Innovation,” pp. 110-114) 

 The Impressionists’ Early Gatherings

After quite a build-up, the final three galleries devote themselves to works that most consider classics of early Impressionism.  The shift is palpable as we visually experience the sharp break with tradition.   The 7th salon, “École de Batignolles” traces how the early artists—Manet, Renoir, Bazille, Scholderer, Fantin-Latour –each radical in their own way, shared a dialogue and friendship while remaining artistically distinct and highly experimental.   “École de Batignolles” was an early name given to the group of artists who were later called the Impressionists.  The phrase itself refers to informal meetings of these artists and intellectuals with Manet at the famed café Guerbois on the rue de Batignolles which ultimately led to the decision in 1867 to set up an exhibition separate from the Salon.  While these famed 8 exhibitions of “new painting” did not begin until 1874, their genesis was in these early stimulating gatherings.   The phrase also refers to a group of interconnected portraits executed by these artists that round out their sense of camaraderie.   Henri Fantin-Latour’s “Homage to Delacroix” (1864), his “A Studio in the Batignolles” (1870) and  Frédéric Bazille’s “Bazille’s Studio” (1870) are three striking but completely different portraits whose theme is the tight bond between these artists.  

Frédéric Bazille’s large painting, Family Reunion,” (1867) stands out with its bold execution.  The subject is Bazille’s family on holiday in the South of France and each of the ten figures is captured portrait-style, looking directly towards the viewer, as if captured by a camera.  This serves to unify the composition but also adds the sensation of an odd stiffness.  The contrast is spectacular– the sun is shining brightly but the group is under the shade of a large tree whose foliage filters and articulates very sophisticated light and shadow effects against the subjects, their clothing and surroundings.

Family Reunion. 1867. Frédéric Bazille (1841-1870). Oil on canvas, 59 7/8 inches x 7 ft. 6 ½ inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski

Classic Impressionism  

Standing in the final galleries and beholding the most famous early Impressionist masterpieces is something that has to be experienced in person. The Impressionists’ flickering brushwork was highly effective in capturing a sense of immediacy–the fleeting quality of light and atmosphere.   Several works by Camille Pissaro, the only Impressionist painter to show in all eight of the Impressionist exhibitions, point to his reverence for nature and his agility in creating lighting effects that capture its seasonal moods.  “Path through the Woods, Summer” (1877) captures light shining through dense forest, illuminating a path, while “Hoarfrost” (1873) captures the stillness of a winter’s day.  

Turkeys. 1877. Claude Monet (1840-1926). Oil on canvas. 69 x 68 inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski

There is nothing simple about the masterwork of Claude Monet, including his deliberate sense of improvisation that suggested rather than described what the eye was taking in.  Standing in front of his huge (6 x 6 ft) “Turkeys,” (1877), we are amused at his vibrant celebration of foul and seduced by its vivid hues.  The head of turkey asserting itself in the lower left of the canvas is marvelous—a spiraling ribbon of pure color.  Monet, like other Impressionists, laid light and dark colors right along beside one another, producing bold contrasts that created palpable visual tension in their artworks.   The brushstrokes enforced this– the white feathers of the turkey’s companions are rendered in long and thick impasto strokes, creating a rough irregular surface texture that mimics actual feathers and captures and reflects light.   This was no accident– the Impressionists were keenly aware of new scientific discoveries that led to a new understanding of color and the placement of contrasting and complimentary colors to created visual tension in their artworks.  Primary colors were brightest when they were brought into contrast with their complementaries. 

The Gare Saint-Lazare. 1877. Claude Monet (1840-1926). Oil on canvas, 29 ¾ x 41 inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski

In terms of subject matter, along with landscapes and the cherished beauty observed in casual, everyday life, the early Impressionists were also very interested in modern urban life and suburban landscapes.  Monet’s “Saint-Lazare Station” (1877) celebrates the marvel of modernization and stunning architecture of the Saint-Lazarre station, a bustling terminus for several important train lines.   We can almost feel the energy of the steam trains coming and going amidst a sea of travelers—everything dissolved in expressive bursts of steam.  Monet created an astounding array of highlights and shadows in this painting without using any earth pigments.  Instead, he created his own palette of browns and grays by mixing new synthetic oil-paint colors (taken for granted today ) colors such as cobalt and cerulean blues, synthetic ultramarine, emerald green, viridian, chrome yellow, vermilion, and crimson lake.  Even his shadows are comprised of blended color.  The Lazare gare was a popular subject with the Impressionists and Manet’s “The Railway” (1872-73) currently in the National Gallery of Art, uses the station as a backdrop for his portrait of a young woman and child. 

Gustave Caillebotte’s The Floor Scrapers, ”  (1875) depicts a mundane task that we can hardly imagine worthy of celebrating in paint– laborers stripping a wooden floor of its varnish.  The spectacular lighting renders it so otherworldly that several people have told me they just can’t get it out of their head.  The painting is also one of the first depictions of the urban proletariat as opposed to the rural peasants in Jean-François Millet’s “Gleaners” (1857) or “Normand Milkwoman on Her way to Gréville,” (1874).   Caillebotte’s vision was thoroughly modern, and his paintings offered treasured glimpses into Parisian life: interiors, views over the rooftops from balconies, strollers on the bridges and avenues.

The Floor Scrapers. 1875. Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894). Oil on canvas, 40 1/8 x 57 5/8 inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski

Impressionist Dialogues 

 Once the impressionist movement was born, there was no turning back and artists began to challenge classical values across the board.   Within a relatively short time period, Impressionist artists were depicting all aspects of daily and modern life with new grace and freedom. The show concludes with a number of works by Edgar Degas, all of which convey a very present sense of movement and immediacy.   Degas adopted new compositional approaches inspired by Japanese woodblock prints (in particular Hiroshige), photography and graphic illustration.  By studying series of photographs, he learned the technique of selective framing which allowed him to focus on exactly what he wanted to depict compositionally and to infuse his work with a sense of spontaneity.   Despite their spontaneous appearance though, Degas often made numerous preparatory studies.  The show offers several examples of his well-known paintings of racehorses and ballet dancers.  

I found the unusual intimacy of “The Pedicure” (1873) to be disturbing, no creepy.  An older man is clipping the toenails of a young girl who is reclining back on a sofa and appears to be sleeping or ill. She is shrouded in yards of sheeting and appears quite vulnerable.  Light streaming in through a window gives the scene a Rembrandtesque resonance.

 There is no pat answer to exactly what Impressionism exactly is –certainly, it was a different way of seeing and an art of immediacy, movement, great vibrancy and the exploration of everyday life—all captured in the play of light and color.  I can’t wait for the second installment.  END

Birth of Impressionism will have the following extended hours this week— 

Thursday, September 2, 2010, until 10 pm (last ticket 8:30 pm) 

Friday & Saturday, September 3 & 4, 2010, until 11 pm (last ticket 9:30 pm) 

Sunday, September 5, 2010, until 10 pm (last ticket 8:30 pm) 

Monday (Labor Day), September 6, 2010, until 9 pm (Last ticket 7:30 pm) 

Tickets and additional information:  www.orsay.famsf.org/

September 1, 2010 Posted by | Art, de Young Museum | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments