Post-impressionism redux

Musee d'Orsay

Main hall, Musee d’Orsay (Courtesy: Benh, via Wikipedia, under CC-BY-2.5)

It was almost 30 years ago to the day that I attended my first exhibition of post-impressionist art. That was in London: it was Post-Impressionism at the Royal Academy of Arts, 1979-80, and we went on March 9, 1980, the last day of my first European trip. Last night, March 4, 2010, we went to the Masterpieces from Paris exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia. It is an exhibition of post-impressionist art sourced solely from the wonderful Musée d’Orsay. The Royal Academy of Arts exhibition, by contrast, contained paintings sourced from collections besides their own.

Now, being a librarian-archivist, bibliophile and all-round hoarder, I still have my catalogue from the 1980 exhibition, and so I did a little comparison. I loved that first exhibition – partly because the post-impressionist era is a favourite of mine – but when I compare the offerings from the two exhibitions, well, there’s a big difference. The Musée d’Orsay’s collection is outstanding and to see such paintings as Van Gogh’s “Starry night” and “Bedroom at Arles”, and Monet’s “Waterlily pond, green harmony” in my home town on the other side of the world is something to be treasured.

However, the The Musée d’Orsay exhibition is not only great because of these top masterpieces; it is full of treasures, big and small. Some of the small treasures that caught my attention included works by Maurice Denis. Now, I checked him out, too, in the two catalogues and found an interesting example of art on the move. In the 1980 exhibition was Denis’ lovely, colourful “Sunlight on the Terrace” (1890). The catalogue, as catalogues do, said it was “Lent by a private collector, St Germain-en-Laye”. Clearly that collector did not hang on to this gorgeous piece (and wouldn’t it be interesting to know the story behind that) because here it now is in the Musée d’Orsay’s collection.  This current exhibition catalogue says it was “purchased, 1986”. I liked this little work, as well as a few others by Denis.

As, I think, most of us like to do when we go to an art exhibition, I looked for a work or two that particularly appealed to me. Of course, it’s hard to go past the “biggies” like the Van Goghs, Cezannes, Monets, and the like. We’d seen some before, but they were then, and will remain always, stupendous. However, the fun is finding new artists or new works to take your fancy. For me, this time, these new works included a couple by Denis. They also included an artist I don’t recollect having heard of before, Théo van Rysselberghe. He worked quite a bit, though not solely, in the pointilist style, and two of his works are in the exhibition. The one that particularly appealed to me was “The man at the tiller” (1892). While the waves seemed a little clumsy to me, I was drawn to its simple but dramatic composition. I also like its allusion to Hokusai’s famous “The great wave of Kanagawa” (1829-1832) – and I like it because I am fascinated by pointilist painting.

The exhibition – of 112 works by 35 artists – is beautifully curated. The works, which cover the significant styles and schools – including Pointilism, Neo-impressionism, SynthetismSymbolism, the Pont-Aven School, and the Nabis – that loosely comprise the Post-Impressionists, are spread thematically across 6 rooms. This arrangement works well to demonstrate development within these styles as well as between them – and it resulted in several artists appearing in different rooms as they developed their style over the period. And, the lighting is magnificent. “Starry night”, for one, simply shimmers. It’s no wonder that the Gallery reached its target of 250,000 visits 6 weeks before closing. This is a blockbuster to end all blockbusters.

(Note: I have not included images of any of the artworks here due to copyright complications. While the works themselves are generally out of copyright there are arguments that images of these works are not. I am not willing to take on the “big boys” on this matter as the Wikimedia Foundation did last year. And anyhow, they are mostly easy to find with a quick Google search, if you are interested)