Monday, June 7, 2010

Impressionist Paris: CIty of Light at the Legion

From Mucha to Manet, Degas to Daumier, early photography and advertising posters, lithographs and woodcuts, the current exhibit at the Legion is an utter delight from start to finish. Over 180 works, dating from 1850 to 1900, are on display: prints, drawings, photographs, paintings and illuminated books.

“This exhibition gives us a special opportunity to show off some of the Fine Arts Museums’ greatest treasures from its holdings of 19th-century French works on paper, including an outstanding group of new acquisitions that will be shown here for the first time,” says exhibition curator James A. Ganz. “It is conceived as a journey from the dark alleys of ‘Old Paris,’ at the dawn of the Impressionist era, to a world of color and light, culminating in a gallery of vibrant French posters from the turn of the 20th century.” Each section of the exhibit is organized by theme - from the opening tragedy of the Franco-Prussian war to the culminating triumph of the Paris Expo of 1889, which introduced the Eiffel Tower, the tallest structure in the world at that time. 

Alphonse Mucha, JOB, 1898. Color Lithograph

The curator, James Ganz, has opened up the pyramid skylight for the first time in ages and staged the entrance like one of Paris' many gardens of the Belle Époque.  But, as you turn to  enter on the right, you come face to face with a huge blow up of a photograph of one of the many medieval parts of 19th century Paris. The only thing missing is the smell (thank heavens). You are immediately transported back to a time of war (Franco-Prussian, 1871), the Commune (also 1871), political upheaval and social inequality, unparalleled creativity and artistic innovation. Paris could rightfully claim to be the cultural capital of Europe and anybody who wanted to be anything flocked to the city, a city which (according to Baudelaire), changed more quickly than the human heart.

Charles Marville, Rue des Sept Voles. 1865. Albumen silver print. Collection of the Troob Family Foundation.

The first gallery that you enter contains photographs and lithographs of a period that is probably the most unknown to us. Paris was bombed during the Franco-Prussian war and the conclusion of that war not only led to the downfall of the Third Empire but the bloody and brief revolt known as the Commune. Paris was torn apart again and the revolt brutally crushed.  To this day nobody  knows the full extent of the death toll. Photography was a young art, but the small format photos speak eloquently of a city in runs, a city called by one observer, "a city of the dead." Reading the commentary on the many pieces by Daumier on display is a quick course in 19th century French social and political history. They show a fiercely critical attack on the "have's" of the period with an equally powerful sympathy for the "have-nots" combined with insults that put our current political slanders to shame.

Georges Seurat, Study for The Circus Parade. 1886-1887. Conté Crayon.

By 1871, much of the medieval city had already been destroyed by the building projects under Napoleon III.  Now, with the wide boulevards designed by Baron Haussmann, the gas lights that gave Paris the title of "City Of Lights," there was a cornucopia of pleasures for every taste and every budget. There was the opera, the cafes, brothels, circuses and the ladies who strolled the boulevards and the grande horizontals for those with the money. It was the world of Zola's Nana and Manet's Olympia - sex for sale - and the artists in the exhibit have captured every nuance, using every one of the new techniques to their fullest extent. The modern artists of the day rejected the old fashioned ideals that the artist should present moral tales from history and mythology. Contemporary art looked at the life on the street or the life through the keyhole (voyeurism being one of the themes of the exhibit), not allegories of gods and goddesses.

Toulouse-Lautrec. The Seated Clown. 1896. Color Lithograph with crayon and brush.

James Tissot, Ladies of the Chariots, 1885. Etching and Drypoint. 

Georges Seurat, Eiffel Tower. 1898, Oil on panel

 It is fitting that the show should contain several of the most iconic images of Paris. The Eiffel Tower, painted with pointillist precision, by Seurat (1889) is a tiny masterpiece. Only 9 1/2" x 6", it - like the rest of the work in this superb exhibit -- proves that work of art doesn't have to be huge to be immensely powerful.

Impressionist Paris at the Legion of Honor
June 5th through September, 26, 2010

1 comment:

SEO said...

i think that Tour Eiffel is the best building in Europe...i saw it...but only for three minutes cause i was in a Paris hop on hop off bus :(.
I want to return there as soon as possible...maybe next year if my head will fire me :)