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CONTENTS, January 10, 2000
THE GREAT GOLDEN CLOCK OF THE MUSÉE D'ORSAY. Photo: Copyright ©—Glenn Loney 2000/The Everett Collection.
[01] The Great Orsay Clock
[02] Where's the Train To Orléans?
[03] Stocking the Orsay Museum with a Little Bit of Everything
[04] Theo van Gogh as Art Dealer & Collector
[05] Fauvism at Paris MoMA—Trial by Fire
[06] Women Painters of the Académie Julian aat the Dahesh Museum

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Copyright © 1998 Glenn Loney.

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No matter where a traveler was standing in the vast hall of the Gare d'Orsay, he had no excuse for missing a train because his watch was wrong—or had stopped. This magnificent gold-framed clock dominated the great glass-and-steel atrium of the most handsome railway station in Paris.

Today, it remains the highly visible signature-image of the fin-de-siècle grandeur that made the Orsay Station admired all over Europe. And it reminds the hordes of visitors who throng the atrium—now reborn as a museum—when it's time for a lunch in the ornate Belle Époque restaurant which was once the sumptuous dining-room of the elegant hotel which fronted the actual station.

SEINE RIVER FACADE OF MUSÉE D'ORSAY. Photo courtesy of Musée d'Orsay.
But this great golden time-piece is not the only giant clock in the Musée d'Orsay. On its splendid Seine-side facade, two immense clocks—visible from the Musée du Louvre across the river—are set in towers which flank the former entrance bays to train-departures for Orléans and other great cities in Southwestern France.

If you are on one of those "Paris on $50 a Day" budgets—it used to be "$5 a Day"—and fear you dare not splurge on the delicious plats, entrées, et desserts of the grand restaurant, you can snack inexpensively inside one of these tower-clocks.

What's more, as the great minute-and-hour hands move inexorably, you can actually look out through the glass face of the clock and see the Louvre gleaming in the sun.

That is, if it's not raining, snowing, or blowing down the ancient trees along the Seine, as it did just before the memorable Paris Millennium Celebrations.

Where's the Train to Orléans?

Surveying the vast central hall of the Musée d'Orsay—now populated by major sculptures of the 19th and early 20th century—and the crowds of tourists admiring them—you may well wonder what happened to all the trains?

At its inauguration on Bastille Day 1900—as an architectural centerpiece of the Great Paris International Exposition—there were sixteen tracks beneath the great glass roof. These were electrified tracks, extended from the former Paris terminus for trains from Southwestern France, the Gare d'Austerlitz.

That historic station is still in business—unlike its one-time replacement. But, at the turn of the century, Austerlitz wasn't considered central enough. It still isn't.

So there were frantic months of tunneling along the Seine to extend the tracks underground to the new station. That's why, in its heyday—unlike Paris's other major railroad stations—there was no vast expanse of surface trackage sprouting out of one end of the d'Orsay.

There is no Grand Central Station in Paris, a place where all rail-lines converge. Nor is there one in New York. Grand Central, in fact, even today is not a central station. You still have to get a bus or cab to make connections at Penn Station.

At the Gare Saint-Lazare, the Gare du Nord, the Gare de l'Est, the Gare Montparnasse , and the imposing Gare de Lyon, surface trackage sprouts out the rear ends of their great glass-and-steel halls. Fortunately, the excellent Paris Metro will help you make your connections on time.

Americans—and especially New Yorkers—who do not remember the Imperial Roman Vastness of the long-lost Pennsylvania Station, may wonder why the atrium of the d'Orsay had to be of such Caracallan size.

In the 19th century, when steam—and smoke—ruled the rails, stations needed high-roofed halls to allow the smoke and steam to rise and escape. With the advent of electrified locomotives, this became unnecessary.

So the Gare d'Orsay was a bit of an anachronism when it was completed, since the practical purpose for such a vast glass vault had largely vanished.

Unfortunately, though it—and its grand hotel—enjoyed an illustrious history in the annals of travel, politics, and culture, that span was all too brief. Electric trains became longer and longer. The arrival/departure platforms in the grand hall could no longer accommodate them.

On the eve of World War II, in 1939, the station ceased operations as a major terminus. It continued to serve the suburbs. But its underground trains began to function like the Metro, with underground stations.

The station had other lives afterward, including serving as a setting for Orson Welles' filming of Kafka's The Trial. It was illuminated by the performances of Jean-Louis Barrault and Madeleine Renaud, who used it as a theatre. It even was used as a temporary auction site.

The station hotel stayed in business until 1973, by which time developers were lusting after the station's central placement on the Quai d'Orsay. Fortunately, there were admirers of this magnificent building, so it was protectively "Listed" in 1973.

In 1978, it was declared a National Historical Monument. Plans were made for its renovation and rebirth as a museum. It would include—as it now so handsomely does—all the arts from the second half of the 19th century into the early 20th century.

The museum was inaugurated by François Mitterand, President of the Republic of France, in 1986. Initially decried by some acerbic critics as a random collection of bad art from the past, it was an immediate success with the public, however.

A small pocket-sized paperback, "Orsay—From Station to a Museum," chronicles the history of the station and the palace and state courts which preceded it. The courts were burned down in 1870, during the horrific civil strife in the days of the Paris Commune.

These vine-covered ruins stood silently beside the River Seine for thirty years. Only the erection of the Gare d'Orsay removed and erased this sad testimony to the fondness of the French for Protests, Rebellions, and Revolutions.

The museum's paperback costs only 35 Francs and is richly illustrated. You can see how the tracks were extended from the Austerlitz Station. How it looked as an abandoned ruin. And how it now looks, with a remarkable variety of arts, crafts, and architecture on display.

A Little Bit of Everything!

Even some of the Orsay's publications suggest that there were initially curatorial problems with filling the newly created exhibition spaces in the atrium and its lofty flanking aisles.

Most museums, of course—even when they acquire grand new premises—have been collecting and rejecting over the years. The Orsay's collection had to be assembled from major Paris museums such as the Louvre and the Museum of Modern Art. As well as from provincial museums and private collections.

Artists who are central to the collections of New York's Museum of Modern Art are now housed in the Orsay, rather than Paris' own MoMA or the Centre Pompidou.. It's now a matter of different cut-off dates in what's really modern in Paris and in Manhattan.

The formerly "modern" recedes into Art History as the New Millennium dawns. But at the Orsay, these works never looked better. The fact that they are now classics—instead of daring, controversial experiments in artistic vision—doesn't dim their brilliance in both color and conception.

As for those critics who still dismiss or disparage some of the Orsay's massive sculptures and huge Salon canvases as lacking in merit or artistry, chaqun à son goût, as they say.

Large Salon paintings of historical, mythological, or religious subjects have long been out of fashion. And not only with critics.

Among the general public flocking to art museums on both sides of the Atlantic, there are few who can even recognize religious scenes, let alone understand what their biblical significance may be.

As for mythological characters, most museum visitors now are more familiar with Star Trek heroes. As for great moments in history—especially French History—many foreign visitors to the Orsay may have no idea of what they are looking at.

Nonetheless, Salon Paintings are making a comeback with the public. This is often because of the impressiveness of their scale, composition, drama, coloration, technique, and detail.

Compared with some of the daubs and splotches on view in more modern collections, some of the great salon canvases now seem almost masterpieces of conception and execution.

And the great exhibition rooms created at the Orsay in the side-aisles are grand enough to show such large works. In fact, the cast-iron and plaster-work framing the spaces—which still celebrate various city-destinations—makes a very welcoming environment for huge canvases in ornately designed and gilded frames.

Even if some of the exuberant excesses of 19th century French artists either overwhelm or oppress modern sensibilities, the Orsay has such extensive holdings of the Impressionists, the Nabis, and the Symbolists, that they alone are worth several visits.

In addition to the small paperback survey of the Musée d'Orsay, there is also a much larger softcover, "Your Visit To Orsay"—"in 150 major works!" This costs only 100 Francs—about $15 at current exchange-rates—but would certainly cost much more at an American or British art museum.

Not only does this guide recap the history of the site and building, but it also provides isometric floor-plans. These demonstrate the ingenuity of the planners and curators in organizing the diffuse collections with some spatial and sequential logic.

This was not easy to do, as some of the newly created architectural spaces are awkward and confining. If it is important to a first-timer to experience the artworks by type, school or chronology, it's a very good idea to follow these plans, available free at the entrance desk.

Otherwise, you are apt to wander from sculpture into architecture and decoration, and then make a left turn into Impressionism.

In France, Queen Victoria wasn't on the throne, or in the President's Chair, so they have other names for the lush and often oppressive architectural and design styles we call Victorian.

For those who think they hate any kind of Victoriana, some of the Orsay treasures may astonish them.

Furniture, ceramics, wallpapers, stained-glass, fabrics, and objects d'art of the Second Empire and the Third Republic are often much more imaginatively conceived, ingeniously designed, and elegantly crafted of the finest materials than many of their English and American counterparts.

The chambers filled with the marvelously sinuous Art Nouveau furniture of Hector Guimard. And the fantastic constructions of French ébenistes are also a delight. But the Orsay's offerings in the Decorative Arts are hardly limited to French designers.

On the threshold of the 20th century, there certainly were discriminating French collectors who admired the genius of Charles Rennie Macintosh in Glasgow, and Josef Hoffmann and Kolo Moser in Vienna.

Outstanding examples of their work are on prominent display. As are important paintings and sculptures by European artists not born or resident in France.

The truth is: there are so many remarkable works by French artists on view—not only because they were already in national collections—but because French artists and craftsmen led the world at this time in their genius, inspiration, innovation, and skills.

It is incomprehensible that anyone—let alone a responsible critic—would dismiss the collections of the Orsay as passé, old-fashioned, out-dated, or second-rate and not worth the visit.

STUDYING VAN GOGH'S "WOMAN OF ARLES" IN THE MUSÉE D'ORSAY. Photo: Copyright ©—Glenn Loney 2000/The Everett Collection.
Major blockbuster exhibitions outside France frequently credit the Orsay with loans of modern masterpieces. Consider some of the artists on view here: Van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Matisse, Maillol, Rodin, Renoir, Redon, Rousseau, Pissarro, Degas, Bonnard, Corot, Cassatt, Cezanne, Courbet, Ensor, Gauguin, and Seurat.

And there other earlier masters like Ingres, Millet, Bonheur, Delacroix, and Winterhalter—whose portrait of Mme. Rimsky-Korsakov is stunning.

Film and photography are also important at the Orsay, not least because some of the most significant experiments in cinema began in Paris with Georges Méliès and the Brothers Lumière.

And, while the Orsay pays visual tribute to Julia Cameron and Lewis Carroll, it gives pride of place to such noted French photographers as Atget and Nadar.

Paris is a city of high points, historically, architecturally, gastronomically, and culturally. But, because of its artistic inclusiveness, a day—or even several days—spent in the Musée d'Orsay can be the highest point of your next visit to the City of Light.

If you have never been to Paris, or to the Orsay, your appetite for a visit will certainly be whetted by studying a copy of "Your Visit To Orsay." It's available in major languages, just out this year.

In a large 9"x12" format, its splendid full-color reproductions work magically in evoking the artworks. Major works are shown in full in small photos, with full or double-page spreads of important details from the paintings, sculptures, or decorative arts.

Each has explanatory text, full catalogue listing, historical context, and a graphic indication of where to find the artwork in the museum.

I purchased this excellent guide on my way out. I thought it too heavy to carry around, but after looking at it back at my hotel, I was eager to return to the Orsay and look more closely at each work.

In fact, I almost missed that famous and formerly scandalous Manet painting of Olympia, as well as his equally infamous—but also oddly erotic—nude lady picnicking with two fully dressed gentlemen on the grass. The small crowded chambers don't give pictures like these the space they need.

At the rear of the great atrium—among some interesting but underlit architectural models—is a glittering and amazing reconstruction of the old Paris Opéra, Palais Garnier. This was constructed, from 1982-86, under the direction of Richard Peduzzi, who designed Patrice Chereau's memorable 1976 Bayreuth Centennial RING.

In longitudinal section, it shows in detail every aspect of foyer and auditorium decoration and stage-machinery. Nowhere is a Phantom of the Opera to be seen, but the model shows quite clearly that Garnier designed the major spaces of his opera as separate units with different roofs.

Vincent's Brother, Theo, as Dealer and Collector

VINCENT BY HIS OWN HAND. Photo: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Vincent van Gogh Foundation.
Unfortunately, by the time you read this, the recent Orsay special exhibition devoted to Theo Van Gogh will have closed. With paintings, sketches, letters, and artifacts, it reconstructs the life and career of Vincent's beloved and loving brother.

A family-tree with photos shows the Van Goghs to have been a handsome family indeed. Obviously, this unusual show helps fill in some of the blanks in the general account of Vincent's life—and especially his relationship with his very supportive brother.

But, for many admirers of Van Gogh's works, Brother Theo—if recognized at all—is that dedicated letter-writer who understood his brother's genius when Vincent himself doubted and the larger world ignored him.

So it is now really helpful to be able to see what Theo liked and collected himself, who his artist-friends and art-buying clients were, and what they liked and collected.

Among the canvases on view is one of those pre-Maxfield Parrish Neo-Classic fantasies, Fête Céréale, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. This exotic exercise in mythology was on loan from the Forbes Magazine Collection on Lower Fifth Avenue.

[If Steve Forbes' presidential bid fails again this election-year, he could sell some of the paintings to the Orsay!]

Very interesting is Emile Bernard's self-portrait, with a portrait of Paul Gauguin on the wall near him.

Other paintings include works by Pissarro, Corot, Maris, Daubigny, Monet, Renoir, Toulouse Lautrec, and Emile Schuffenecker.

Some outstanding Gauguins are also in display. And, of course, some important Van Goghs. What Van Gogh is not important today?

I cannot find any note in the press-materials that this will travel to another museum. If it does not, that will be a great loss for many who are interested not only in Vincent Van Gogh's paintings, but also in his tormented life.

That's not the major purpose of this exhibition, obviously, but it certainly provides a meaty footnote to the Vincent Van Gogh Chronicle.

And it was time that Theo have some of the spotlight for himself. He was much, much more than a fraternal support-system for his far more famous brother.

FAUVISM—The Trial by Fire

[Closing February 27] Soon to close at Paris' Museum of Modern Art, this is one of the most joyous and colorful art shows I've ever seen. Even some classic modern painters I generally think of as dark and moody, even gloomy, are here represented in canvases bursting with color.

This is a very large, extensive, and inclusive exhibition. It is organized in no less than 14 chambers. Plus a Video Room and a Documentation Area.

Some painters—mainly French—whose works I'd never seen, or only in textbooks, seemed to me quite as talented as their better known colleagues.

Not only were a number of canvases unfamiliar, but some names were as well. I now, thanks to this show, want to see new shows featuring these talents.

Subtitled "Eruption of Modernity in Europe," the show vividly demonstrates how the excitement and vitality of this all-too-brief-lived movement involved major and minor avant-garde artists. Its span was effectually 1905-1914, brought to an almost abrupt close by the horrors of World War I.

Among the Dresden and Munich Modernists, there are some flamboyantly colored paintings by Gabriel Münter and her Murnau house-mate, Vassily Kandinsky. Other glowing landscapes and portraits are by Alexi von Jawlensky, Max Pechstein, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Emil Nolde, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and Franz Marc. What could be more fanciful and liberating than a Yellow Cow or a Blue Rider, after all?

Of the well-known French moderns, Matisse is prominent. As is Derain and to a lesser degree, Dufy and Delaunay. As well as some lesser lights seldom seen on the walls of New York's MoMA.

The Suprematist Russians and others are here: Tatline, Gontcharova, Lentoulov, Larionov, Kontchalkovsi, Malévitch, and Matchkov.

Nor are the Italian Futurist neglected. Piet Mondrian is also on hand. As is Scotland's John Duncan Ferguson.

Unfortunately, owing to the crowds and the Parisian indifference of the front-desk personnel, it was impossible to contact the press-officer. So I not only have no press-photos of this vibrant exhibition to share, but I also do not know if this show will be seen more widely.

It is perhaps too extensive to travel in its present incarnation. Not to mention costs of insurance, packing, shipping, and installation elsewhere.

But it would be a revelation in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco!

If this show does not travel—or you cannot get to Paris before it closes—the 496-page catalogue is well worth having for the marvelous reproductions alone. They are printed on very sturdy coated paper and well bound in hardcover.

The book is also a suitcase-filler and rather heavy. With 220 color-plates and other illustrations, it costs 295 Francs.

It can be ordered from the museum's bookstore: 11, Avenue de Président-Wilson, 75116 Paris, France. Phone: 011-33-1-5367-4000. FAX: 011-33-1-4723-3598.

MYTHOLOGICAL ART DECO RELIEFS ON PARIS MoMA. Photo: Copyright ©—Glenn Loney 2000/The Everett Collection.
I approached the 1937 World's Fair Pavilion that is now Paris' Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris from its impressive Art Deco front courtyard. I was fascinated by the pre-war mythical sculpted reliefs.

This elegant Moderne Palace could have been a sister to some Art Deco structures at the San Francisco and New York World's Fairs in 1939. But those American Deco Pavilions were molded in lath and plaster. They were not destined for the Ages.

The Palais de Chaillot has similar Art Deco lines and sculptures and was also created for prewar fair. It is being renovated, as are a number of other Paris landmarks.

Finishing photography of the Deco reliefs brought me into the Fauvist exhibition via the bookstore. And past some homeless Parisians, sleeping on the steps of this ill-maintained courtyard.

Thus it was a great surprise, as I left by what I thought was the rear door, to find several hundred people in line there, in a light rain. Waiting for admission—which I had found immediately.

I showed my press-card to a lady at a table on the side—apparently she was dealing with groups—and she gave me a ticket. She also seemed glad to receive the brochures from MoMA and the Whitney in New York. I hope she was able to pass them on to the Press-Officer.

Parisian Salon Painting for Women at the Dahesh

PORTRAIT OF MLLE. BREUIL--In 1892, painter Rose-Marie Guillaume demonstrated skills mastered at the Académie Julian. Courtesy of Dahesh Museum & André Del Debbio Collection, Paris.
[Closing May 13] To have one's paintings accepted for display at the famed Paris Salon put an artistic seal of approval on emerging French talents. The painter's subject-matter, his inspiration, composition, and painterly techniques in rendering it: all were shown to meet the stiff standards of the Academy.

So it was now safe—indeed a good investment—for private collectors to purchase such paintings. And it often proved an investment in the future of their collections for museum curators to acquire such canvases.

But even artists of undoubted talent and skills were on occasion rejected. Edouard Manet is a notable example.

Unfortunately, talented women artists found it much more difficult to win Academy and Salon approval. The prestigious École des Beaux-Arts would not even accept them for training.

Rodolphe Julian, however, broke the rigid mold and encouraged women artists of ability to study at his Académie Julian. This was not for want of talented male students. Among those who studied there were Matisse and Vuillard, and even the Americans Robert Henri and John Singer Sargent.

Now, at the Dahesh Museum on Fifth Avenue in midtown, the works of some of the brilliant women who studied at the academy are on view. Germany's impassioned Expressionist Käthe Kollwitz was one of the graduates.

The show's title is: Overcoming All Obstacles: The Women of the Académie Julian. As the wall-texts and the show-catalogue amply illustrate, the obstacles weren't only encountered in trying to obtain good training. The Dahesh—which specializes in the kind of 19th century paintings so admired at the Salon—renders a unique service in making the names and works of the women on display better known. It should be of special interest to feminists who already know how difficult it has been for women artists over the centuries to make their marks. [Loney]

Copyright © Glenn Loney 2000. No re-publication or broadcast use without proper credit of authorship. Suggested credit line: "Glenn Loney, Curator's Choice." Reproduction rights please contact:

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