Thursday, June 10, 2010

Rouen's Musée des Beaux Arts

As Susie blogged the other day, we visited the Musée des Beaux Arts of Rouen--in two stints, actually. With our first visit, we saw the new exhibition "A City for Impressionism: Monet, Pissarro and Gaugin in Rouen." The museum didn't permit photos of the exhibition, but I'll try to describe some of the highlights. In the late 19th Century Rouen was only about 2 hours from Paris by train, so it served as a convenient escape for Impressionist artists, especially those interested in plein-air painting. Rouen also had several city natives who played significant roles in the development of Impressionism; collectively they were known as, naturally, the Rouen School.

The exhibition covers paintings of Rouen by pre-Impressionists such as Turner and Corot, landscapes of the Seine as a transition from traditional to modern painting, early visits to Rouen by Pissarro, early (1884) works in and of Rouen by Gaugin when he first turned full-time to painting, the start of the Rouen School with its "Three Musketeers," Monet's famous series of paintings of the Rouen cathedral, Pissaro's response (in 1896 and 1898) with his great series of landscapes of Rouen's industrial docksides, related Impressionist paintings of Rouen's many churches, the paintings of the Rouen School through the turn of the 20th Century, and the subsequent development of painting in Rouen into post-Impressionism.

The works in the exhibition come from not only the Musée des Beaux Arts itself but also from private collections and from museums around the world, including many museums from the United States. The exhibition's clear highlights are the Monet cathedrals and the Pissaro industrial landscapes. In his stays in Rouen, Monet painted a total of 30 views of the cathedral, showing the cathedral at different times of day and in different weather. He would have multiple canvases in progress, moving from painting to painting as the light changed. And of these 30 paintings, an amazing 10 are grouped together in a single room in this exhibition. The Pissaro paintings are less famous, and perhaps less radical, but they reflect Pissarro's taking up Monet's initiative by painting the same view of the river and the adjacent industrial area in different light and in different weather. At the time, Pissarro suffered from acute conjuntivitis, was confined to his hotel, and thus painting what he could see from the hotel's window. These paintings, with their smokestacks and smoke, ships and sailors, and light and weather are truly masterworks.

In the afternoon, we returned to the museum to view its permanent collection, which is also outstanding. And, in addition to the collections, the museum itself is interesting. The museum's central atrium, from which visitors make their way into the exhibitions, is a luminous courtyard filled with large works.

Even the stairwells are works of art, in this case by Felice Varini, whose "Five Ellipses" was installed in the Place des Armes in Metz (and now has been removed after the opening of Metz's Pompidou Center). Varini's works in the stairwells consist of elements of circles, painted on the walls and ceiling, that are visible as circles only in convex mirrors affixed at the top of the stairwells. Some of Varini's work pays explicit homage to the work of Marcel Duchamp, who grew up and began his career in Rouen, and who is well-represented in the museum. Among Duchamp's creations exhibited here are three experiments in using a phonograph turntable to create kinetic art. Here's one of these "Studies of Rotating Discs."

The esplanade in front of the Museum is named for Duchamp. In France, signs for streets named after persons typically have the person's dates and a capsule biography, such as "French patriot" or "Mayor of Rouen." With Duchamp, in keeping with his iconoclastic outlook, the city has had fun with the street signs for the esplanade, which include varied descriptions of Duchamp such as "engineer of lost time" and "Anartist."

The works of Monet and Pissarro are also represented in the museum's permanent collection. Although they don't relate to the theme of the exhibition, I wanted to include at least a couple of these paintings to provide something of the exhibition's flavor. Monet painted this field of flowers near Giverny in 1885.

And Pissarro painted this view of Paris's Tuileries gardens, with snow effect, in 1900.

The museum also includes many works of the 18th and 19th Centuries, ranging from "Orientalist" paintings of Arabia to monumental religious paintings.

I especially enjoyed one painting in particular--a view of the interior of the Rouen museum in 1880, by the Rouenais painter Charles Angrand, who could be thought of as the "fourth musketeer." The coolest thing about this painting is it is displayed in the room in which it was painted, with some of the paintings it shows, such as Boulanger's 1827 "Le supplice de Mazzepa," a kind of disturbing work, actually, that made Boulanger famous.

1 comment:

  1. One of the great French museums "de province". Tremendous drawing collection the envy of museums ten times as large. Merci, M. Rosenberg.