Geneva Anderson digs into art

Love Art? The 54th San Francisco International Film Festival is screening 6 new films about art, starts this Thursday, April 21, 2011

Rutger Hauer plays Pieter Bruegel in Lech Majewski`s "The Mill and the Cross" which transports viewers into the dense frieze of Bruegel`s 1564 masterpiece "The Way to Calvary." The film screens twice at SFIFF54. Courtesy of San Francisco Film Society.

The 54th San Francisco International Film Festival  (SFIFF54) which starts this Thursday and runs through May 5, always brings a wide range of exceptional foreign films to the Bay Area.  Organized by the San Francisco Film Society, SFIFF54 offers 191 films from 48 countries in 33 languages and a multitude of special events and visitors.  In this year’s the line-up are 6 new films about artists, art movements, and art collecting that are so innovative in both their storytelling and in the technology they employ to bring their stories to light that you won’t want to miss them.

Sharpening our eyes to the mysteries and techniques of painting by old masters are three special films that have already received rave reviews in critical circles.  Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog’s 3D descent into the Chauvet cave in the south of France, home of 30,000 year old charcoal images, the oldest art known to man leads the way, followed by Polish filmmaker Llech Majewski’s The Mill and The Cross which allows the viewer to actually live inside Pieter Bruegel’s bustling Flanders landscape as he creates his 1564 masterpiece The Way to Calvary.  Amit Duda’s Nainsukh examines 18thcentury Indian court artist and miniature artist Nainsukh amidst breathtaking dream-like shots of Indian life.

After seeing Lech Majewski`s "The Mill and the Cross" about Pieter Bruegal`s "The Way to Calvary", you will never forget the dozen or so characters whose life stories unfold and intertwine amidst the backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition. Image: Kunsthistorishes Museum Vienna

In terms of contemporary art, our own Bay Area filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson’s !Women Art Revolution (WAR) profiles the war women artists waged  for  recognition in the old boy establishment art world through the stories of leading women artists.  The film has already been screened at the Berlin, Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals and has received rave reviews. Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint 17 continues on a project that Barney, born in San Francisco, began as an undergraduate at Yale which explores the relationship between self-imposed resistance and creativity.  Barney has also been selected to receive this year’s Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award which honors a filmmaker working outside the traditional realm of typical narrative filmmaking.  Barney, who considers the screen an extended canvas, has been consistently innovational, merging film with sculptural works, uber athleticism and his own bizarre yet prescient radar.  Yves Saint Laurent L’Amour Fou provides a fascinating and highly personal story of the life of fashion designer and art collector Yves Saint Laurent as told by his lover and business partner, Pierre Berge, who co-organized the famous three day “sale of the century” auction that raked in an astounding $484 million for the couple’s art collection.  What follows are capsule reviews of these films. Full reviews will follow when the films open in the Bay Area.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Director: Werner Herzog, USA, 2010, 95 min, documentary)

Renegade German filmmaker Werner Herzog again reaches remarkable heights in a film that literally goes underground to illuminate the place where it seems that art itself was born—the remarkable Chauvet Pont d’Arc caves in the South of

In Werner Herzog`s "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," the eclectic German filmmaker gains unprecedented access to film the fabled Chauvet cave in the South of France, home of man`s earliest art. Courtesy of San Francisco Film Society.

France. He and a minimal crew were allowed into the extraordinary cave, named after French explorer Jean-Marie Chauvet, who in 1994 made a Tutankhamen-level art find–hundreds of pictures of animals drawn with detail and sophistication by early man an estimated 32,000 years ago.  Not only are its walls decorated, but the cave also contains the fossilized remains of animals now extinct and the cave floor is marked with the footprints of animals and early humans.  Highly subject to erosion, the cave is closed to the public. Herzog shoots in 3D to accentuate the massive, sculptural forms and brings to life what was captured previously in a series of static portraits.  He also interviews the various experts who are allowed down there with him: paleontologists, archaeologists, art historians, and a perfume specialist, who talks about the smells of resin and wood that might have prevailed way back then.  Herzog’s filmic voice is unmistakable and this grand project seems to have completely enthralled him.  At one point, he says that the positions of various legs in the ancient drawings are “proto-cinema” and as he crawls and points, we too feel the magic of this prehistoric artistry.  (Screens: Monday, April 25, 7 p.m. and Tuesday April 26, 9:30 p.m., Sundance Kabuki Theatre)

 The Mill and the Cross (Director Lech Majewski, Poland/Sweden, 2010, 97 minutes)

Our approach to art history will never be the same after this enthralling film by Lech Mjaewski which invites the reader to literally enter the mind of Flemish master Pieter Breugel and glean the deeper meaning of his 1564 painting “The Way to Calvary.”  A first that we can only hope sets a precedent, Majewski uses Breugal’s preparatory drawings, computer generated blue-screen compositing, 3D imaging, a huge painted backdrop as well as on location shooting to invite the viewer into the craggy landscape where all the rituals of daily life unfold.  What you’ll learn is that against the backdrop of the brutal Spanish Inquisition, Breugel had to be clever and he imbedded his work with a series of symbols that tell a compelling crucifixion story.  There are more than 500 figures in the panoramic painting, including an array of villagers at different stations in life and the red-caped invading horsemen who butchered and then suspended them on huge wheels for all to see.  Rutger Hauer plays a Breugel who imparts wisdom about life and art that makes us hunger for more.  Charlotte Rampling delivers a Virgin Mary whose suffering is palpable. The film is based on Michael Francis Gibson’s novel bearing the same name. (Screens: Saturday, April 23, 12:30 p.m. SFMOMA, Wednesday, April 27, 9 p.m. Sundance Kabuki Cinemas)

Nainsukh (North American Premiere) (Director, Amit Dutta, India, Switzerland, 2010, 82 min, in Hindi and Punjabi with subtitles)

Amit Dutta has established himself as one of India’s most talented experimental filmmakers whose works oscillate between Indian mythology and highly personal narrative.   Nainsukhis Dutta’s second feature film and it very poetically explores

Amit Dutta`s NAINSUKH playing at the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 21 - May 5, 2011.

the life and art of Nainsukh, the 18th miniature painter from Guler in the northern hills of India who became the court artist of Rajput Princes of Jasrota.  Shot on location in Jammu and Kashmir, Dutta re-constructs Nainsukth’s miniatures through compositions set in the actual ruins of the Jasrota palace and its surrounding landscape.  Nainsukh, played by Manish Soni, a well-known miniature artist, trains at his father’s celebrated painting workshop.  In 1740, he moves on to create delicate masterpieces that elaborate on daily court life with a palpable naturalism he gleaned from Mughal painting.  Because he was given rare entry into the common routines of the prince’s life, and was able to accompany him on such activities as tiger hunts, Nainsukh was able to translate all this into a body of art that far exceeded the normal artistic output of the day which was produced in workshops.  The film reveals how Nainsukth renders his figures in very individual and personal ways with exceptional vitality and truthfulness absent the idealized beauty typical of royal court paintings.  The film’s slow meditative pace pulls you into another era.  (Screens: Friday, April 22, 9:15 p.m. at New People, Sunday, April 24, 2:30 p.m. Sundance Kabuki and Sunday, May1, 7 p.m., Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley)


!Women Art Revolution (Director: Lynn Hershman Leeson, USA/Canada, 2010, 83 min, Documentary)

“!Women Art Revolution” “WAR” is Lynn Hershman Leeson’s documentary about women artists who spearheaded the feminist art movement and a shocking visual primer  for the oft-repeated statement “Well behaved women seldom make

Women artists like Shirin Neshat whose provocative works about women and Islam catapulted her to fame in the early 1990`s are the subject of Lynn Hershman Leeson`s documentary "!Women Art Revolution" playing at the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival. Image: San Francisco Film Society.

history.”  “WAR” tracks early feminist artists like Judy Chicago, Nancy Spero, and the Guerilla Girls through a montage of archival footage, much of it taken by Hershman Leeson herself over the past 35 years.  The conclusion: women artists have been doing important work all along but they have been ignored, underrepresented, sidetracked and underpaid in the art world’s male-dominated upper echelons.   Impact:  marginalization, no one knows much about the pioneering women artists who decided to challenge the system.   Hershman Leeson, who spoke to me from her San Francisco studio, said she made the film “to show a history that’s never been written or documented, that makes the known history obsolete.”   The film establishes the importance of this movement in contemporary art but is really addressing the broader cultural history of America, the history of freedom of expression and equality starting with late 1960’s and going forward—it really shows the prejudices that fuel discrimination.”

The film isn’t angry or bitter in its approach—it instead profiles a determined and very intelligent group of women who love what they do and used their resources shrewdly to get attention.  History isn’t what happened in the past; it is what later generations choose to remember.  Thanks to Hershman Leeson for this vital work documenting women’s candid stories of WAR.  Hershman Leeson, whose works are in the public collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, chairs the Film Department at the San Francisco Art Institute and is internationally acclaimed for her pioneering work in new media technology. (Screens, Saturday, April 23, SFMOMA and Monday April 25, 8:40 p.m., Pacific Film Archive)

Drawing Restraint #17 (North American Premiere) (Director Matthew Barney, Switzerland, 2010, 32 minutes)

Drawing Restraint continues on a project that conceptual artist Matthew Barney began in 1987 while an undergraduate at Yale which explores the relationship between self-imposed resistance and creativity.  Barney’s theory is that

Matthew Barney`s "Drawing restraint 17" is set in Basel`s Schaulager Museum and makes its North American premiere at the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 21 - May 5, 2011. Image: Huge Glendinning, courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York.

encumbrance can be used to strengthen an artist’s output, much as resistance is used by athletes to build muscle.  Barney’s latest film in the series uses the architecture in and around Basel, Switzerland as a key player in the film.  Basel is home to the Schaulager Museum for which the piece was commissioned.  Split-screen sequences incorporate Goetheanum, a center for the study of “spiritual science” (designed in the 1920’s by architect/thinker Rudolf Steiner), a woman digging in soil rich with worms and a tram ride to the Schaulager Museum (designed by (Herzog & de Meuron).  The main action occurs inside the museum where Barney portrays an artist supervising the construction of a sculpture made form rotting wood beams.  This site becomes a metaphoric wormhole.  (Screens: Saturday, April 30, 5 p.m. Sundance Kabuki Cinemas)  Combined with this year’s Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award  presented by critic and curator Glen Helfand, who will also interview Barney before the audience.  Admission to the interview and screening is $25.

Yves Saint Laurent L’Amour Fou (Director: Pierre Thoretton, France, 2011, 100 min, in French, Documentary)

When iconic designer Yves Saint Laurent died of brain cancer in June 2008, at the age of 71, he left behind a substantial fashion legacy: he had popularized the pantsuit for women as well as the safari jacket, had democratized fashion by offering more affordable prêt à porter (ready to wear) lines, and had launched Opium, a scandalous perfume that many women considered their second skin in the 1980’s.  He also left behind one of the world’s greatest art collections, 700 plus pieces ranging from Egyptian artifacts to important works by Brancusi, Matisse, Degas, Manet, Duchamp, Ingres, Warhol, and many other leading artists assembled over 50 years with his lover and business partner Pierre Bergé.

In Pierre Thoretton`s "Yves Saint Laurent L’Amour Fou" screening at SFIFF54, Yves Saint Laurent discusses his impressions of Andy Warhol`s 1974 portrait of him and its place in his sumptuous art collection.

Pierre Thoretton’s Yves Saint Laurent L’Amour Fou tells Laurent’s story and the story of the couple’s great art (and furniture) collection through both historical and present-day footage.  As Bergé bids farewell to the collection in the famous three day auction orchestrated by Christies at Paris’ Grand Palais on February 23-25, 2009, you’ll see and hear how the couple lived and acquired their collection which they displayed in their exquisite homes in Morocco, France and England.   Mondrian’s 1922 painting “Composition in Blue, Red, Yellow and Black,” which inspired the designer’s groundbreaking 1965 Pop Art chic day dress wasn’t his when he designed the dress but Saint Laurent acquired it later.  In Studio 54’s heyday, Saint Laurent befriended artist Andy Warhol who did his portrait sans the signature glasses.  A very rare early 3 foot tall sculpture in wood by Constantin Brancusi “Madame LR,” was thought to be one of roughly 30 known wooden Brancusis executed between 1913 and 1925.  Throughout the film, it’s clear that Laurent was inspired by beauty in many forms but happiness was illusive.  The film culminates in the frenzy of the famous three day auction of the collection that brought in $262 million on its first night with the Brancusi fetching a record fetched $36,792,835, the Mondrain $27, 191,525 and Matisse’s “Les coucous, tapis bleu et rose” $45,264,579.  (Screens: Tuesday, May 3, 2011 and Thursday, May 5 at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas)

SFIFF 54 Details:

Complete program information:

Where: Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Pacific Film Archive

When: April 21 to May 5, 2011

Tickets: $8 to $13 regular screenings, $20 to $25 for Matthew Barney screening and on stage discussion at Persistence of Vision Award.  Purchase

April 18, 2011 Posted by | Art, Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 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. 


 “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:

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