Fortune Smiles: Thoughts on Musée d’Orsay and Picasso Collections at the deYoung

By LIZ HAGER

Last week’s breaking news that both the Musées d’Orsay and Picasso will be sending a part of their collections to the de Young next year, while they renovate their facilities. The news made me want to shout for joy. How lucky can a provincial metropolis be?  Praise be to John Buchanan and Dede Wilsey for closing the deal.

The prospect of this once in a lifetime exhibition set me to dreaming. No doubt only a small number of the choice holdings will come our way. Still, if by some stroke of unimaginable luck, I were to have a say in the matter, which of the works in these glorious collections would I include?

I’m aching to see my best loves again, Manet’s Olympia for starters. Further, all things being equal, I’d prefer to view works from artists not generally well represented in the Bay Area. That is why there are no Rodins on my list, even though he counts as one of my favorite sculptors. Also, I’d want lesser known works from well-known artists included, which is why there aren’t any Picasso Cubist pieces on the list. (OK, I’ll admit: while I always found Cubism intellectually exciting, actually enjoying the work has always been challenging.)  Though it’s hard to limit the list, for the purposes of this space, limit I must.

My “Fortune Smiles” Top 10 list (in priority order):

#1.
Manet—Olympia

Edouard Manet,Olympia, 1863,
Oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay.

Of the French painters at d’Orsay, Manet will always top the list for me. Olympia is the most fetching of his works—the first truly-naked nude in the history of art. That brazen stare says it all.

#2.

Bonnard—Croquet Game

Pierre Bonnard, Twilight (or The Croquet Game), 1892,
Oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay.

Ever since reading Michael Kimmelman’s essay on Bonnard (“Introduction” to The Accidental Masterpiece), I’ve been hooked on Bonnard’s unique ability to make great art out of the seemingly monotonous details of his life.

#3.

Gustave Caillebotte, The Floor Scrapers, 1875,
Oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay.

The technical aspects of this painting—the perspective, the sheen of light captured as reflection off the floor and backs of the worker, the interacting poses of the workers, the stripes of the floor broken up by the circular curls of shaved wood. . . Stop me,  I could go on forever about this painting! And, on top of it all, a groundbreaking example of urban “realism,” to counter all those rural Courbet scenes.

#4.

Pablo Picasso, Two Women Running on the Beach (La course), 1922,
Gouache on board, Musée National Picasso.
I’ve always loved Picasso’s big chunky, neo-classical figures the most. Though thoroughly weighty, these two nymphs move with the spriest of strides.  They are joy personified.

#5.

Degas—The Tub

Edgar Degas, The Tub, between 1886-1889,
Bronze, Musée d’Orsay.

There are lots of Degas paintings around the Bay Area, but one of his sculptural works would certainly make my d’Orsay list. Not the young dancer—she’s everywhere—but a bather, another of his other emblematic themes. Like da Vinci, this form is squeezed elegantly into the circumference of a circle. See how her toes gently violate the frame. . .

#6.

Whistler—Variations in Violet & Green, 1871

James Abbott McNeill Whistler,Variations in Violet and Green1871,
Oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay.

Whistler’s place in the pantheon of great artists is finally assured. Bets are that the de Young will want his more famous Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, known colloquially as Whistler’s Mother, but I’m hoping the d’Orsay sends this one instead. Since viewing Whistler’s Six Projects at the Freer, I’ve been inexorably drawn to his more ethereal works.

#7.

Gauguin—Portrait of the Artist with the Yellow Christ

Paul Gauguin, Portrait of the Artist with the Yellow Christ, 1890-91,
Oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay.

The d’Orsay doesn’t own the original Yellow Christ (luckily, however, this painting is at the Albright-Knox and Buffalo is not nearly as far as Paris), but I hope we will get the next best thing, Gauguin’s self-portrait with the Yellow Christ.  I never tire of Gauguin’s palette, which gave a later generation of artists—Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter in particular—the permission to go wild with color.

#8.

Gabriel Loppé—TheEiffel tower struck by lightening, 1902

Gabriel Loppé, The Eiffel Tower Struck by Lightening, 1902,
Paper print photograph, Musée d’Orsay.

The French were instrumental in the birth of the photography, so it seems only fitting to include a representative of this medium on the Top 10. Loppé’s photograph achieves several aims—it uniquely speaks to to the role that photography played in the 19th century in documenting the natural sciences; it portrays this most most French of icons in all its majesty (the Tower built in 1889 was the tallest man-made structure until 1930); and ultimately it depicts unending the battle between the hand of man and the forces of nature.

#9.

Pablo Picasso, Groupe de Saltimbanques, 1905,
Pen, ink, gouache and traces of charcoal on vellum, Musée National Picasso.

I like the Picasso renderings of the Saltimbanques (acrobats), but frankly any of Picasso’s drawings would do nicely as demonstrations that the artist was in fact a master draftsman. Picasso famously noted that he spent a lifetime learning how to paint like a child.

#10.

Henri Rousseau—Portrait of Madame M 1895-97

Henri Rousseau, Portrait of Madame M., 1895-97,
Oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay.

In this case, Le Douanier’s naive style of painting reminds me of the rigid and unpretentious folk portraits created by itinerant painters of 18th century Colonial America. Rousseau’s stylized treatment of the flora gives this painting a naively decorative quality not found in most other paintings of his day.

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