Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Art that sweeps away the dust from the soul

Inside the one of the Orangerie's Monet rooms
Commeth the hour, commeth the artist. Saturday dawned in Paris with the expectation of solid rain, but it proved to be reluctant to pitch it down as forecast.

The Other Half went off to hunt for a jacket in one of Paris’s great department stores, while I went to see a woman about a watch on the Ile St Louis.

Grande Nature morte, Picasso
Meeting up again later, we decided to take the opportunity afforded by the continuing dry weather to head down toward the Tuileries, taking a stroll down the Rue du Rivoli.

When we were most of the way there, the rain decided to fall. Fortunately, we were near to the road and to a rather smart-looking eatery with an unsmart name – The Welcome Café.

Since lunch was required, we sat down under the colonnade to wait out the shower with food.

Paul Guillaume by Modigliani
And very pleasant it was too, with both of us opting for an omelette with girolles, which came garnished with chervil, flat leaf parsley and chives, and was washed down with a glass of Chardonnay from the south west of the country.

For all that the establishment was clearly catering largely for a tourist clientele, the kitchen did not make the error of turning the lightly-beaten egg into something solid and dry, but had clearly cooked it for only a minute at the most.

Mrs David would have approved. I most certainly did.

And so to the Musée de l’Orangerie.

Originally built in 1852 to shelter the garden’s orange trees, it later metamorphosed into a temporary display space, before being assigned to house Monet’s eight monumental Nymphéas canvases in 1922, following the suggestion of the artist’s friend, Georges Clémenceau. It opened to the public in 1927.

Paul Guillaume by Derain
In the basement, the gallery houses the Paul Guillaume colllection of late 19th century and early 20th century paintings.

It’s an extraordinary collection by the dealer, including a large number of Renoirs – this was the point at which The Other Half decided we’d seen more of his works than you “could throw a chocolate box at” – plus plenty of works by Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse and others.

Of the ‘others”, this was when at which I concluded that Andre Derain really is overrated – a dilettante, hopping from style to style to style.

Two canvases of harlequins seem to illustrate the point – he simply couldn't make up his mind what he was seeking.

The Matisse works are not his best – being from the ‘awkward’ Nice period, which left his disciples angry and bewildered, as he tried to find his way to the next stage in his artistic journey – but they’re still worth seeing (obviously).

Three Sisters (1917), Matisse
And much the same can be said of the Picasso works there, although a Blue Period couple hugging was well worth seeing, as was a still life, Grande Nature morte (1916-17) that was genuinely Cubist.

There was a sprinkling of Modiglianis – my favourite being a 1915 portrait of Guillaume himself, which knocked one of the same subject by Derain, from 1920, into a cocked hat.

The Other Half was particularly fascinated to discover works by Chaïm Soutine, whose work helped to build the bridge between traditional approaches and expressionist ones.

Le Village (1923) gives an idea of how Soutine viewed the chaos of the modern world, but his portraits are equally interesting, including Le Garçon d’étage (1925).

There are also a number of works by Maurice Utrillo – one of the few famous painters of Montmartre who was actually born there (and died there too).

Le Village, Soutine
We particularly liked La Maison Bernot (1924).

So much for the basement – and well worth the price of admission on its own.

But the two vast, oval rooms that house those Monet canvases, painted in an attempt to find something that would soothe people’s spirits after WWI, are in a different league again.

As I’ve noted previously, I was never particularly ‘in to’ Monet, but these extraordinary canvases made me think again.

Perhaps my lack of interest in them previously was because I’d only seen some of the smaller waterlily paintings in the National Gallery, where the rooms tend to be crowded and you don’t easily get the chance to spend time with the works.

Le Garçon d'étage, Soutine
The Orangerie concentrates the mind.

As you enter the first room, a notice asks you politely to “enjoy quietly”.

And that is precisely what is needed, and the staff enforce it – particularly welcome when a family behind us at one stage decided to start a row about whether they were going back to their hotel or not.

Benches allow you to sit and contemplate the works, and the light and the colour make it easy to get lost in them as they take on a life of their own.

There is something extraordinarily ‘spiritual’ about these works: time spent with them seems to produce something akin to a religious experience.

And it is entirely true to say that their beauty has a soothing quality.

La Maison Bernot, Utrillo
Generally, people are quiet, although an element of disruption can still occur around you. I found it useful to try to ‘play’ Debussy’s Prélude à l’apres-midi d’un faune to myself in my mental concert hall, and it certainly helped to clear the mind.

Monet died before the Orangerie opened for the first time to display these works.

But these career-ending and defining works, inspired by his garden at Giverny and executed as he struggled with cataracts, go well beyond being simple decoration.

Nymphéas detail, Monet
In the summer of 1931, Amédée Ozenfant, the French Cubist painter, writer and co-founder, with Le Corbusier, of the Purist movement, noted in his journal:

“Monet devoted his last years to the poetic series of the Nymphéas ... I found myself taking off my hat.

When an experience provokes such a decisive reflex, there is no doubt about it; the work is a strong and elevated one.

In spite of this apparent superficiality, Monet, like Matisse, attained results as elevated as certain severe works.

The chapel-like presentation, the submarine light, contribute to this strong impression: but, all the same, Monet had something to do with it.”

Or to put it another way, they also put me in mind of Picasso’s comment, that “art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life”.

My view of Monet is changed beyond recognition.

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