Latest crowd-pleaser at the National Museum: the blockbuster Dreams and Reality: Masterpieces of Painting, Drawing and Photography from the Musée d’Orsay, Paris (phew), where some 140 objects of 19th and early 20th century French art are on display.
I visited twice. The first on the exhibition’s opening day, when I had to stand in line for what seemed like forever just to get in, and, more recently, on a relatively empty weekday afternoon. I went back mostly because I left the first time feeling distinctly underwhelmed. I figured it had to be the crowds; I was in and out in under 30 minutes, and missed much of the last couple of galleries.
Unfortunately, it didn’t get better on a repeat viewing. Sorry, crowds.
Here’s the rub: for an exhibition that’s being touted as the largest showcase of Impressionist art in Singapore so far, Dreams and Reality is kinda small and, well, not terribly impressive. While a couple of masterpieces from the d’Orsay are included here – such as Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone and Cabanel’s The Birth of Venus – the first thing that leapt to mind was, where’s the rest of it ?! An exhibition drawn entirely from the collection of one of the world’s greatest repositories of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, and this is it ? Sheesh. I’ve never been to Paris or the d’Orsay, but between the latter’s reputation and the hype surrounding the present show, let’s just say the reality, pun intended, was something of a massive letdown. To be fair, the organizers have been pretty candid about the difficulties in securing loans; the show’s curator, Szan Tan, is on record as noting that “… many works in these galleries may not be representative of each artists’ style. And that’s regrettable.” (Read Notabilia’s more generous review here.) The lady’s candour is refreshing, but unfortunately it doesn’t do much to ameliorate what I can only describe as a cheque that didn’t end up getting cashed.
Take Degas, for one, who, aside from a couple of sketches, is represented here by a small-ish painting titled Dancers Climbing a Staircase. I loved it – indeed, it was one of the highlights of the show for me – but we’re talking about an institution which owns literally hundreds of works by the artist, including well-known masterpieces such as Family Portrait, a.k.a. The Bellelli Family; In a Cafe, or Absinthe; The Dance Class; and The Orchestra at the Opera (below). Not a single one in that list made it to our shores. I understand that a retrospective of Degas’ nudes is coming up at the d’Orsay early next year, but this is ridiculous: unless works like the Bellelli portrait and the various paintings of ballet dancers and musicians are being reserved for a show on nudes, I don’t see why works like Van Gogh’s and Cabanel’s, which presumably have high insurance premiums and travel less easily, made the cut, but a more “representative” piece by Degas did not. Gustave Caillebotte is another case in point: he is best remembered for his paintings of streetscapes and urban subjects – including the breathtaking Paris Street: Rainy Day, considered his magnum opus and a masterpiece - produced before his retreat into yachting-related pursuits at Argenteuil. While Caillebotte’s oeuvre is slim, especially in contrast to those of his peers, he is generally regarded these days as a crucial figure in the artistic ferment of the late 19th century; pity then he remains missing from the National Museum show altogether, despite the fact that the d’Orsay owns a couple of great pieces like his Floor Scrapers of 1875 (frankly brilliant; below), or View of Rooftops (Snow).
And then there’s Manet. The Luncheon on the Grass, one of the most controversial paintings in the history of art, is, of course, nowhere to be seen. Neither is Monet’s tribute to Manet’s painting, also in the collection of the d’Orsay (both below).
Does it still surprise at this point ?
I suppose the d’Orsay can come up with any number of reasons why most of these works do not, or rarely, travel out of the country, but the fact that they were willing to part with some stuff but not others, is immediately suspect.* Why the half-gesture ?
* It has since been brought to my attention that perhaps the fault isn’t theirs; a lack of funds on the part of the NM may well have been the deciding factor here. If that is indeed true, then this should be a whole other conversation … A shoutout to Notabilia.
The Orchestra at the Opera (c. 1870), Edgar Degas. In the collection of the Musee d’Orsay.
The Floor Scrapers (c. 1875), Gustave Caillebotte. In the collection of the Musee d’Orsay.
The Luncheon on the Grass (1862 – 3), Edouard Manet. In the collection of the Musee d’Orsay.
The Luncheon on the Grass (1865 – 6), Claude Monet. In the collection of the Musee d’Orsay.
It wasn’t all negative though. Despite the rather glaring gaps, the show had its strong points, a conceptual coherence being the most salient. The viewer is invited to move through a number of themed galleries in linear fashion, from mythological and literary subjects, to depictions of the Franco-Prussian conflict and its consequences, to portrayals of industrial and peasant life, leisure pursuits, Impressionist landscapes and finally, er, existential loneliness. It wasn’t explicitly stated, but the layout of the exhibition is in keeping with the general contours of standard art historical narrative: one witnesses a progression from Salon-approved subjects of academic interest, to a wider artistic scope embedded in growing awareness of social issues like the life of the peasantry, the effects of the Industrial Revolution and the Hausmannization of Paris, to the revolutionary new visual forms of the Impressionists, and finally, what one imagines is poetic tribute to that dimension of life in the age of Marx and capitalism, what later commentators such as Frankfurt School theorists Adorno and Marcuse identified as one of the defining characteristics of modernity: the alienation of the individual …
And on that note, here are my top five moments at the Dreams and Reality show - ample testament to the enduring appeal of the 19th century, when even a curmudgeonly, hyper-critical nit-picker like myself isn’t completely turned off.
Absolutely no pretensions here to any sort of objectivity whatsoever, just a bunch of personal picks:
1. GOING FISHING (1898 – 1900), PIET MONDRIAN.
Before Mondrian starting putting black lines and coloured squares on pristine surfaces, there was a representational phase. I’d never seen one of his early mimetic works before, and this picture of a barge moored on an Amsterdam canal was quite a revelation. Not so much for the fact that once upon a time Mondrian actually deigned to portray subjects from nature, but for the observation that even here one is able to discern the flickerings of his later preoccupation with what Rosalind Krauss dubbed the “flattened, geometricized, ordered … antimimetic, antireal” quality of the grid. The linear patterning of the surface, the ambivalence of the space, the subjugation of the sole human figure to the design of lines and curves that predominate – it’s clear that Neo-Plasticism was but a short ways off.
2. STARRY NIGHT OVER THE RHONE (1888 – 9), VINCENT VAN GOGH.
This one speaks for itself I think. Not to be confused with the more famous Starry Starry Night currently in the MoMA. Anyone who’s ever had the pleasure of viewing a Van Gogh in the flesh knows how little justice is done to his work by mere reproductions; they are vividly, lushly textured surfaces of near three-dimensional proportions, an anticipation of Jasper Johns’ encaustic canvases more than half a century later. Like Johns’ questioning of the iconicity of those signs that populate our everyday lives, Van Gogh’s paintings only seem like unitary images from a distance, breaking up into broad, painterly gestures upon closer inspection – thick, dense brushstrokes of saturated tints roughly applied, a tactile field of chromatic brilliance that only reassembles itself into vaguely recognizable shapes as one steps away … I’ve blathered on about the role of haptics in the visual arts elsewhere on this blog; we don’t need to go over that again, but to quote Merleau-Ponty one more time: “The senses intercommunicate by opening onto the structure of the thing. One sees the hardness and brittleness of glass … One sees the springiness of steel.” (From The Phenomenology of Perception.)
3. SOLITUDE – F. HOLLAND DAY (1901), EDWARD STEICHEN.
The exhibition opens with the oft-repeated quote from Baudelaire’s The Painter of Modern Life (a reference to illustrator and watercolorist Constantin Guys): “Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immovable.” Baudelaire’s advocacy of the modern extended only to subject matter, style and – ironically – traditional mediums like drawing and watercolour; he was famously antipathetic to the then nascent technology of the camera. However, with the advantage of hindsight it becomes difficult to abstract photography out of the equation, especially since, in the words of art historian Jonathan Crary:
It is not enough to attempt to describe a dialectical relationship between the innovations of avant-garde artists and writers in the late nineteenth century and the concurrent “realism” and positivism of scientific and popular culture. Rather, it is crucial to see both of these phenomena as overlapping components of a single social surface on which the modernization of vision had begun decades earlier. I am suggesting here that a broader and far more important transformation in the makeup of vision occurred in the early nineteenth century. Modernist painting in the 1870s and 1880s and the development of photography after 1839 can be seen as later symptoms or consequences of this crucial systemic shift …
(See Crary’s Techniques of the Observer.)
This “shift” is located in the operations of the viewing body and the exercise of social power, but the point here is that the binary relationship between the positivist instrumentalism of the camera and the subjective expressiveness of the fine arts in the 19th century is perhaps not so easily dichotomized. Which brings me to Steichen’s image of artist and aesthete F. Holland Day above: the photograph, unusually, is almost horizontal in format, not unlike East Asian handscrolls – no doubt to accommodate the subject’s recumbent pose. Day, in fact, is pictured as a cross between a female nude and a Rembrandt-esque self-portrait. He is shot up close and centre, any suggestion of three-dimensional space banished from the visual field; his black, undifferentiated swathe of a body seems, in fact, to be devouring all sense of composition or perspective within the narrow confines of the photograph.
Is it too much of a stretch to claim that this is about as close to, say, the pictorial abstraction of Matisse as 19th century portrait photography gets ?
4. DANCERS CLIMBING A STAIRCASE (1886 – 90), EDGAR DEGAS.
Like I said, Degas’ piece was a high point for me. Even next to larger, showier pieces like Eva Gonzales’ A Box at the Italian Theatre, this little sliver of a painting holds it own. While the effect of painting on early photography is speculative, the reverse has often been observed; Degas, unlike Baudelaire, took a keen interest in the camera, and indeed the cropped compositions and unusual angles of his paintings tend to be attributed to that fact. One of his most highly celebrated works in that regard is Place de la Concorde (1875), but the present work seems to be even more experimental: the long expanse of almost uninterrupted space that is the wall mimics inflexibly the horizontal orientation of the canvas, an aggressive thrust of solid materiality into the soft-lit space occupied by the dancers in their flimsy, frilly tutus.
5. THE CONVALESCENTS (1861), FIRMIN GIRARD.
I don’t know much about Girard, except that he was an academician, and a pupil of Gerome’s. Judging from the painting above though, I can’t imagine why he doesn’t have more of a reputation. (Or perhaps I’m just ill-informed.) The Convalescents is gorgeous, possessed of a clarity of light and colour that puts me in mind of Raphael – someone whose paintings I was indifferent towards till I saw one in person. More interestingly though, is the sheer geometric delineation of the hospital building in the background: the wall text calls it “perfectly symmetrical”, and indeed the architecture looks pretty unreal in its regularity of proportion, its lines resembling ax-cuts in space. Michel Foucault famously adduced the hospital as an example of the “discipline” of bodies by institutions as a means of social control:
Many disciplinary methods had long been in existence – in monasteries, armies, workshops. But in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the disciplines became general formulas of domination. They were different from slavery … They were different, too, from ‘service’ … They were different from vassalage … Again, they were different from asceticism and from ‘disciplines’ of a monastic type … A ‘political anatomy’, which was also a ‘mechanics of power’, was being born; it defined how one may have a hold over others’ bodies, not only so that they may do what one wishes, with the techniques, the speed and the efficiency that one determines. Thus discipline produces subjected and practised bodies, ‘docile’ bodies.
The medical supervision of diseases and contagions is inseparable from a whole series of other controls: the military control over deserters, fiscal control over commodities, administrative control over remedies, rations, disappearances, cures, deaths, simulations … Gradually, an administrative and political space was articulated upon a therapeutic space; it tended to individualize bodies, diseases, symptoms, lives and deaths; it constituted a real table of juxtaposed and carefully distinct singularities. Out of discipline, a medically useful space was born.
(See Foucault’s Discipline and Punish.)
Foucault seems almost to be describing the visual contrast, in Girard’s painting, between the broken bodies of the figures – a grouping of individuals locked in their own misery, arranged in a seemingly haphazard design over the pictorial space – and the hermetic uniformity of the architecture in the background, the meticulous pattern of the windows foregrounding the divergence between the disciplined severity of institution and the fractured functionality of the human body.