Parisian pride is prodigious. Lately, however, while New York has been gloating over its apparent conquest of cultural, political, and economic hegemony in the Western world, the French capital has seemed spiritually, intellectually, creatively to have fallen onto rather despondent times. Something indeed prodigious has clearly been needed to do the city proud once again as a center of civilization second to none. A rudimentary attempt to satisfy this need brought into being a decade ago the Georges Pompidou National Center for Art and Culture, the riposte of Paris to New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It was hideous and pretentious, a fiasco. The Pompidou Center is a public toy like the Eiffel Tower, not a select abode for art. What was wanted instead was something audacious but sure, something nobody else could achieve but everybody in the world must want to see, something superlative but simple, miraculously imaginative but serenely self-evident and nicely controversial though not overtly contentious. It would have to embody a vision, crystallize an idea, and vindicate an ideal. What it could do for Paris, therefore, would have to be just that little bit better than everything which Paris, even in all its glory, could do for it. What was wanted was a prodigy, in short, prodigiously Parisian. The Musée d’Orsay is it.
The International Exposition of 1900 took place in the City of Light. Celebrating the conclusive victory and plutocracy of the Industrial Revolution, while giving rather short shrift to concomitant political disturbances, including the Affair, this ostentatious occasion also looked forward with a certain complacency to the oncoming century, which was expected to better mankind in every way, answering his dreams as well as his prayers. Not only national but also municipal pride was amply gratified when on Bastille Day of that crucial year a monumental, modern railway station was inaugurated with pomp in the very heart of the capital, on the Left Bank of the Seine, facing the Louvre, the Tuileries Garden and Place de la Concorde, a site, indeed, than which none more proud is to be found on earth. Designed by a Beaux-Arts architect in the style and spirit of the times, the Gare d’Orsay was conceived at once as an industrial temple and factory of travel, its raison d’être to accommodate large crowds of people who knew where they wanted to go and were in a hurry to get there.
Symbol of progress, the Orsay Station became its victim less than half a century after opening its doors.
Symbol of progress, the Orsay Station became its victim less than half a century after opening its doors: the platforms had been built too short to receive electric trains of considerably increased length. The huge terminal, with its vast barrel vault of glass and iron, and the adjacent hotel, with its ornate public rooms and labyrinthine corridors, fell into disrepair, its façade blackened by pollution and the interior looming unlit like a dungeon from the hand of Piranesi. No wonder Orson Welles chose this setting to film his version of The Trial by Franz Kafka. The edifice seemed as doomed as the protagonist. There was talk of demolition, of a grand, brand new hotel to house an influx of tourists ever more countless coming from all corners of the world. Never for an instant, of course, did it occur to anyone to give over this enormous space to an institution of public welfare, a hospital, say, or, even worse, a school. Tourists don’t line up to visit such unprestigious places or spend much money in the shops and restaurants nearby. Paris’s increasingly innumerable visitors, however, are drawn to the city solely by the splendors and beauties of its past, not by any really contemporary, structurally tangible expression of the French spirit. To those responsible for the conservation and glorification of this spirit what, then, could have seemed more natural, more imperative than to contrive some means of bringing the past palpably up-to-date, making it as immediate and timely as the day after tomorrow? If a moribund railway station could be pressed into use for this purpose, all to the good. So, indeed, went the thinking of persons in authority as they eyed the obsolescent hulk just across the river from the world’s greatest museum. That institution itself, moreover, had fallen rather behind the times, unable adequately to cope with the flood tide of tourists and suffering from severe shortages of space, especially in the galleries devoted to the display of works from the second half of the nineteenth century. Quite as a sacramental revelation, consequently, as if begotten by itself, evolved the idea that an unoccupied industrial temple could attain epoch-making transubstantiation by becoming a crowded cathedral of art. And lo, it has come to pass.
Committees sat, curators pondered, architects drew plans, and everybody agreed that the new museum would best go into business by devoting itself entirely to the period when French art was at its apex, the period, incidentally, when Paris was the uncontested, proudest art center of the Western world and the period most prodigiously represented already in the national and municipal collections. Lest anyone suspect, moreover, that the best interests of business were a trifling aspect of the picture, it will be well to point out that this very period produced the works of art which attract by far the largest crowds of paying visitors to museums. As “blockbuster” stock-in-trade only the Mona Lisa herself, now nearly invisible inside a bulletproof bunker, can ring up more impressive tourist revenue than the Impressionists.
From the beginning the Orsay planners foresaw that their museum must have definite boundaries in time but be as comprehensive as possible in its cultural and aesthetic reach. The present-day passion for creating ever more museums is a phenomenon far too complex to delve into here, but it may seem relevant in passing to recall Jean Cocteau’s clever remark to the effect that this contemporary craving to build and visit new houses for civilization’s artifacts is akin to the final, all-embracing vision of a lifetime that is supposed to be experienced by persons drowning as they go down for the last time. Political considerations naturally came into the planning of the Musée d’Orsay, as they come into all endeavors aimed at imposing a coherent semblance of order upon the inherent confusion and tumult of human circumstances, and the museum’s creators shrewdly selected temporal boundaries with a big political bang: 1848 on the left, as it were, and 1914 on the right, with 1870–71 as a radical Parisian barricade in between.
This symbolic scission between right and left certainly played a real part in the formulation of policy as regards the design, direction, and installation of the new museum within the shell of the obsolete railroad terminal, and it is clearly reflected in the manner whereby visitors are directed and expected to undergo “The Orsay Experience.” Delight is definitely not the primary objective of this institution. It aims to instruct. And it seems superbly careless of whether or not three million people per year—the tourist tidal wave counted upon to overrun the Left Bank annually—may possess the least aptitude for learning. The lesson exists. To take it in, admittedly, no individual of average discrimination and acumen could ever be up to the mark. Ten to twenty thousand visitors each day will be admitted to seventeen thousand square meters of exhibition space wherein four thousand objects of art compete, often aggressively, for attention. Aesthetic confrontation on this scale requires discernment of a universal order. Why, one is tempted to say that even Goethe, the last universal man, might have been daunted by such a challenge to his perceptions. And who else do we find waiting for us at the very entrance to the Musée d’Orsay? Yes, it’s the Sage of Weimar himself, though larger than life, of course, and fittingly a bit outside the museum’s time boundary, portrayed in plaster by David d’Angers, frowning and cerebral, aged eighty. Universal genius notwithstanding, the author of Faust would have been stunned to contemplate the heteroclite vision of museological ontology which his effigy has been set up to countenance. Never mind that he would have quite disliked seeing the handiwork of a decidedly inferior artist displayed to such effect.
The first thing about the old railroad station to concern its new custodians was the preservation of the extant exterior. A massive but passive example of the post-Napoleon III monumental meringue style, its ugliness had stood the test of time, and saving it had become a point of Parisian pride. To redesign and reconstruct the interior the architect selected to be principally responsible, and to receive major credit or blame, was an Italian named Gae Aulenti, a woman with a vision all her own and for whom architecture has no business being flexible or temporary. Partial to stone, and plenty of it, she has put together an ingenious, orderly, and impressive series of interlocking galleries, some small and warm, some lofty and grand, others narrow and/or oddly angular, all opening off the soaring central nave except for those on the top floor, which contain the most dazzling concentration of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces. No nation more relishes finding fault that the French, so it was to be expected that Signora Aulenti's designs would win her a cornucopia of brickbats. Some critics say the architect's inspiration appears to have come from they heyday of Il Duce, other say from Karnak or the Baths of Diocletian; others want wood and fabric in place of stone and plaster, still others would have liked an interior mirroring the exterior; and there are many in addition who bitterly regret the good old dusty, drab days of the Jeu de Paume, where all the best pictures previously hung and where, to be sure, thirty-five years ago it was even possible to look at them in ardent tranquility. Those days are gone forever. Gae Aulenti recognized this reality and made her plans accordingly.
Gae Aulenti recognized this reality and made her plans accordingly.
The Musée d’Orsay, therefore, may not be the ideal place to go in order to carry on a love affair with art, as the caress of eyesight craves privacy no less than the caresses of fingertips. And yet the masterpieces are tantalizingly present, only waiting to yield bounties of bliss. To my eye, I must say, the consummation is still ecstatically possible. But I am something of an exception, not to say an aberration, because my lifelong passion for painting and sculpture has put me in a position of privilege vis-à-vis gratification. That is to say, I can get in to enjoy it when the crowds can’t, and it is only right to assert at once that I am a fanatic advocate of such privilege. Thus, wandering alone at leisure along the itinerary planned by Signora Aulenti, I find the material and spatial arrangements quite sufficiently impressive but not in the least offensive, allowing the works of art to take due precedence over the premises, as they should. The one who would further a love affair had best be modest and self-effacing. Compelled to contend with the likes of Courbet, Manet, Degas, Gauguin, and Cézanne, none of whom was oppressed by bashfulness, Orsay’s architect seems to me to have done a highly creditable job. It may even be that, unlike, for instance, Frank Lloyd Wright, she feels an authentic affinity for works of art, since it is they, after all, not their showcase, that can arouse passion.
The concept at the heart of the Orsay lesson is history, and not by any means merely art history; it is historical history embodied, in a huge conglomeration of objects assembled to depict the creative story of a specific period. Everything and everyone, from Alma-Tadema to Ziem, it seems, has been gotten together to serve the didactic purpose. The curators who selected and installed this plethora of clues to the conundrum of culture were principally two: Michel Laclotte, a Louvre veteran and specialist in French primitive painting, and Françoise Cachin, a dynamic, articulate exponent of nouveau musée dialectic, who has now been named director of the new institution. Out of three million yearly visitors maybe three thousand will come prepared to engage in the depth and diversity of looking needed for fit appreciation of the Musée d’Orsay. Does that seem too desperate an estimate? Then make it one in a hundred rather than one in a thousand, although when art’s at stake hyperbole can’t hurt. And I'm not at all sure that my own appreciation would be deemed adequate. I already know everything I can hope to know about the cultural aspects of the Dreyfus Affair, the plight of agricultural laborers, fashions for the seashore, farmyard and factory conditions, Paris under the Commune, Second Empire finery, the advent of the telephone, not to mention the phonograph and the subway, and much more, including falconry and jewelry. I only want to fall in love. And despite its didactic imperative the Musée d’Orsay is prepared to let you do that if you can just get in alone. Privacy generates perspicuity. When three’s a crowd, think about three million. That’s big business. And Orsay, having a mind all its own, is ready to go into it with computer terminals, electronic archives, and audiovisual equipment galore. You want to ask Van Gogh about his ear, Monet about his eyesight, or Courbet about his paranoia, just touch the appropriate buttons and—presto!—the relevant information and images will appear upon a screen with state-of-the-art precision, so to speak. The great idea of the Musée d’Orsay is that you can go in knowing nothing about anything that happened, especially in France, between 1848 and 1914 and come out knowing, if not quite everything, then enough of everything to converse unembarrassed with Goethe. The museum’s ideal is to do Paris proud not only as the place where all this is possible but also as the very place which made it possible. Paris restored to contemporary grandeur by past Parisian grandeur. A prodigy, indeed, of pride. The tourists will surely come in droves.
Having survived Goethe’s omniscient gaze, let’s try to take some measure of the cathedral. Four hundred fifty feet in length, an even hundred in height, awash with natural light beneath the spectacular vault, the central space, with side galleries opening from it both right and left like chapels, definitely evokes a devotional structure. Art as godhead. The icons set up in the nave are all works of sculpture and they perfectly characterize the dominant spirit of the period as one of arid secular mediocrity. The inert procession of creations by Pradier, Bloch, Schoenewerk, Falguière, Carrier-Belleuse, Moulin, et al. culminates in a superabundant collection of Carpeaux which plainly represents a futile effort to elevate him high above the banality and frivolity of his period. In the chapel-galleries to the right are appropriately housed conventional, academic paintings, starting with the wishy-washy Source by Ingres, hideous stuff by Gérôme, Cabanel, Bouguereau, and Fromentin, and even surprisingly poor work by Chassériau, who could be good when challenged by good subjects. It is fun to let one’s eyes frisk amidst all this bad art, knowing, moreover, there is worse to come, because discernment gets whetted by the need for discrimination. Puvis de Chavannes contrived to develop a style all his own, but it tried so hard to be monumental and spiritual that it turned out to be fundamentally vacuous and shabby. As for Gustave Moreau, whose well-deserved fate is to have become chic, which he would have hated, his unctuous versions of mythological subjects glisten with facility but are as lifeless as a slab of agate. Then we come upon the work of Degas done before 1870. What mastery! What daring! Here is a genius, a bit cold-blooded, perhaps, maybe rather misanthropic, but clearly capable at age twenty-five of producing masterpieces. We shall see more of him and acknowledge that he would probably have approved the inclusion of his debut on the side of the conservatives. After which there is a great lot of Napoleon III furniture, porcelain, glass, silver, and assorted decorative junk, all of it supremely ugly and quite a delight in the genre of all-time Camp. There has been some maneuvering in historical circles lately to bring off a rehabilitation of the second Bonaparte emperor, and therefore it’s good and timely to have this occasion to see yet again how utterly shallow, vainglorious, and vulgar was the official taste of his reign.
On the left, to start with we encounter Daumier, a shrewd choice, highly original, artistically and politically radical, ever on the side of the neglected and oppressed though himself a strangely marginal figure both as a man and artist despite great popularity. His major achievements were his lithographs, a small selection of which is shown here. As a painter and sculptor Daumier is good but not great; we leave his gallery without elation. The Barbizon School comes next, Millet, Rousseau, Diaz, Daubigny, plus a few leafy landscapes by Corot, all perfectly pleasing, honest, sensible, and just a bit dull. The spirit soars and the eye is thrilled when we come upon the work of Manet done before 1870, masterpieces like Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia, works with such brilliant but brash reference to Renaissance inspiration that one can only suppose the critics who damned them knew nothing of Raphael, let alone Titian. How pleasing it is to see this audacious, sweet-tempered innovator set in a chronological context which demonstrates both his daring and the effect upon his most gifted contemporaries, who were his friends. For Claude Monet is the next incomparably talented painter whose stellar trajectory is visible within the Musée d’Orsay. Monet, as a matter of fact, is the figure who looms largest and most imposingly throughout the whole museum, as the range of his work on display covers exactly half a century and is represented by some seventy canvases, a veritable Monet retrospective in itself. One recalls, of course, the trenchant summation of Cézanne: “Monet is only an eye. But what an eye!” It’s true. The supremacy of pure looking is rendered by Monet as by none other, and one observes with wonder the sheer delight of his visual experiences and the uncanny sure-ness of hand by which he was able to represent them. This is genius in its most spontaneous and felicitous form: seeing has become equivalent to being, whereby is imparted bliss. Monet’s comrade Bazille, not yet thirty when killed in the war of 1870, makes a brief, brilliant appearance. Then Renoir, supremely talented from the beginning, meets our eye, and the importance of Paris as an essential element of the creative ferment begins to pervade one’s perception both of the museum and its contents.
Some backtracking in the itinerary takes us backward aesthetically, too, to glance in passing at dull but often skilled works by Jules Breton, Troyon, Rosa Bonheur, and Monticelli, with the sudden surprise of a radiant, breathtaking landscape by an unknown painter named Chintreuil. A huge gallery facing the Seine is devoted entirely to Courbet, both the Studio and Funeral being present, plus seascapes, stags battling, and a fine self-portrait. The contradictory, controversial aspects of Courbet’s career and oeuvre are here assimilated into visible evidence that his influence was absolutely decisive for the great painters who came after him, and that his achievement, if not as seductive or sublime as some, is nonetheless of the first order. The two well-known group portraits of noted artists and authors by Fantin-Latour are here, and it is high time to say how self-conscious and aesthetically uninteresting they are, albeit proud illustrations of Parisian pre-eminence. Fortunately Fan-tin was fond of flowers. Whistler’s Mother broods nearby, her long-suffering countenance seeming to suggest she realized and regretted that her self-esteeming son was not a maker of masterpieces. A lot of luminous seascapes and landscapes by Boudin and Jongkind suggest their early influence on the young Impressionists, which is demonstrated by adjacent excellent examples of works by Pissarro, Monet, and Sisley. A batch of Orientalist trash is next, along with academic, story-telling pictures by the likes of Guillaumet, Legros, and Millais. The historic interest and aesthetic emptiness of these works, juxtaposed as they are with creations of enduring vivacity and loveliness, constitute still an intriguing challenge to the viewer’s appreciation. We do not—not yet, anyway—question, I think, the intellectual provocation of having to contend with extremes of artistic achievement and with all the nuances of possible discrimination in between. Goethe’s effigy, after all, warned us right away that we were letting ourselves in for a maximum of mental and visual exertion.
The Colosseum of orgiastic Napoleon III architectural folie de grandeur is, of course, the Opéra, that gargantuan gewgaw made of a hundred different kinds of marble, gilded bronze, mosaic, and red velvet, festooned with statuary and colonnades, ostentatious decoration and ornament run riot. Conceived to be the centerpiece of the “new” Paris ruthlessly being carved from the old by Baron Haussmann, the Opéra, does, in fact, represent a kind of pole round which the temporal and cultural construct of the Musée d’Orsay may be considered to turn. So it has not been forgotten. In the crypt of the cathedral, as in a latter-day reliquary, lies a marvelous scale model of the entire Opéra quartier, set below the floor so that visitors can walk about above it, peering down through transparent panels into spectral miniature streets. There is also a half-section scale model of the building itself, like a doll’s opera house designed for a demented potentate like Ludwig II, who was just at that very period building his hideous palaces in Bavaria. Architectural design is an important aspect of the Orsay experience. There are models, maquettes, and renderings of numerous buildings other than the Opéra. Most spectacular of all exhibits in this department is inevitably a portrait of the entire French capital, an immense, panoramic, aerial view painted in 1855 by an artist called Victor Navlet, who must have spent months aloft in the Parisian heavens making studies from his balloon; the precision of his picture is nearly photographic but at the same time so nicely executed by a human hand as to flatter the discernment of those who recognize reality at a glance.
Leaving the art of architecture thus presided over by proud Paris, and led by the legitimate excitement of everything already displayed to rouse it, we now ascend to the topmost level of the resuscitated structure for the climactic museological rendezvous. Knowing what’s coming—the dozen indubitably great painters who consecrated the glory of Paris in the last third of the Orsay time frame—we are ready to be bowled over, and anybody in love with art will be. Mere flirtation, however, let alone sentimental interest or, even worse, social intercourse, will not do, and consequently a majority of visitors can be expected to carp about the environment created to accommodate their communion with the masterpieces which they have the audacity to “adore.” A lot of complaint, indeed, has been heard about the off-white walls of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist galleries. The lighting, too, a brilliant but not glaring melange of natural and artificial illumination from above, has provoked plenty of objection. And the supposedly monotonous hanging of the paintings in eye-level rows is severely criticized by many. This is all idle chatter. The paintings are there, asking only for our eyes to overflow with the vision of them. And what paintings! What paintings! Manet, Degas, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Monet, Cézanne, Seurat, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, the Douanier Rousseau, Redon, Bonnard, and more, much more. More than eyes can hope to cope with. It is ungracious to say that we miss a masterwork from Cézanne’s last period and a major painting by Seurat, but it’s fair to add that we miss almost nothing else, I think there are a few too many chocolate-box Renoirs and that maybe Sisley didn’t need so much room. Never mind. There is all of Degas’s sculpture, exhibited with an admirable understanding of his ambition to render mass and movement united. The Cézanne gallery is a stunning vindication of his passionate, obstinate effort to make out of nature something permanent and immutable like the art of museums. And at the opposite pole of aesthetic dedication is Monet’s ineffable “eye.” The pastels by Degas, Manet, Redon are breathtaking in their powdery finesse and verve. And what about the sixteen sketches on cardboard by Lautrec? Superb! I forgot to mention Caillebotte and Guillaumin, Signac, Cross, Sérusier, and Emile Bernard. All present and handsomely accounted for. The final galleries show early Vuillard at his best—modest, intimate, incomparably discreet—before he became a lesser figure than his friend Bonnard, also beautifully represented here.
Having experienced so much and come with supreme delectation to the climax of everything we’d been led to look forward to, we might ideally have been prepared for the Musée d’Orsay to let us depart with our ecstasy intact. This is not to be. The Orsay experience gives discipline precedence over delight, and the historical lesson is the one we are set to learn. In a word, art history is art’s goal. Now, it is instructive, of course, and realistic to be on familiar terms with the prospect of death, not only as a personal eventuality but also as the ultimate denouement of our civilization. To contemplate this prospect may not be particularly pleasant, especially on premises dedicated to the glorification of man’s quest for immortality, but a very large proportion of Orsay’s terminal itinerary is devoted to dead works by dead artists. So be it. Anyway, the greatest creators have always had death very much on their minds, and so, perhaps, despite an understandable repugnance for carrion, we do have something positive to learn from all this inanimate art. Most of it can be approximately described as symbolist or naturalist. That is, it evidently wants to convey a significance relevant to its subject matter which the painted or sculpted image alone is not sufficiently expressive to convey. It wants to be Pygmalion’s statue. The greatness of this aspiration, oddly enough, appears very often to have begotten products corresponding to it in dimension, as if size represented substance, and the huge galleries opening off the cathedral mezzanine are replete with gigantic, vacant canvases. For sheer, unbridled vulgarity paintings like The Harvesters’ Pay by Lhermitte, Cain by Cormon, The School of Plato by Delville, The Dream by Detaille—the list could be prolonged ad nauseam—are incomparable: truly egregious rubbish. The trouble, and perhaps the point, is that they will probably please not only revisionist art historians but also a considerable proportion of the crowd. They tell a story, and the public appreciates a story, no matter that it be maudlin and trite. As aspects of art history these overblown prototypes of official taste are unbearably redundant, but at least they provide horrible documentation of everything that Manet, Monet, and Cézanne were actually up against when they set out to seduce the world.
Orsay gives a nod, a rather condescending and understandably casual nod, to the fact that a bit of painting of historical and even artistic interest took place beyond the frontiers of France during this period. There is a nice Winslow Homer, also a small portrait by Eakins so resolutely honest that it reveals in a devastating flash everything bogus and affected about Andrew Wyeth. The Pre-Raphaelite sham at its most meretricious is represented by a puffed-up pseudo-Michelangelo signed Burne-Jones. A leaden allegory by Franz von Stuck drags in fin de siècle Germany, an insipid Böcklin Switzerland, lamentable daubs by Mancini and Morbelli Italy, Breitner Holland, Masek Czechoslovakia. But why go on?
Portrait painting as a separate genre gets attention.
Portrait painting as a separate genre gets attention, too. The Orsay docents have done their homework. The sovereigns of the salons are all here, flashy, paid to please and pleased to, alas. Boldini, Bonnat, Besnard, Jacques-Emile Blanche, even J. S. Sargent, who hated to but had to, picture their subjects in the glassy-eyed, high taxidermy style that became fashionable after photography took over the business of recording people’s features.
Several galleries are devoted to Art Nouveau furniture, and one to the painstaking reconstruction of an entire dining room in this convoluted style. What a pall of odious decorum and ludicrous luxuriance clings to these premises.
Let’s press on for fear an ever-so-slight lassitude might begin to blur our perceptions. It’s true, to be sure, that the planners of the Orsay experience have not expected every visitor to see everything the first time. They want us to return and return and yet again to return, as we used to do, of course, when museums were mainly populated by people in love with art, when the general public was neither interested nor invited. Today things are different. Lassitude is likely to be a very real part of the price of admission. But good discipline does not tolerate complaining. The curriculum is clear: a new museum asks for new eyes. En avant!
A lot more junk sculpture by the likes of Deloye, Gérôme, Fremiet, and Barrias—the last represented by a really hilarious life-size group of alligator hunters—leads up along the open shelf of the mezzanine. If Orsay is to be considered a cathedral, then the center mezzanine is its high altar. Enthroned here we find a single artist present for our veneration. He should not come as a surprise. In the history of Western culture since the end of the Dark Ages only a handful of men have held their contemporaries in such imaginative thrall that they were looked upon not as mere artists but as living embodiments of the creative principle so all-powerful that they came to be viewed virtually as gods. Fitting exactly within the Orsay time frame, one single individual lived up to this superhuman criterion in his lifetime, a Frenchman, of course, and, even better, a Parisian: Rodin. Since that day Picasso alone has contrived to endow himself and his creations with such divine status, and it seems now, a dozen years after his death, that he is likely to have won an enduring measure of immortality. Not so Rodin. Soon after the celebrated sculptor’s demise his reputation took a precipitous plunge, from which it has never since recovered. The reasons for this fall from grace are highly complex, if not necessarily obscure, and may have a lot to do with the abyss which in Rodin’s time, and in his art, divided official, “acceptable” art from art invested with a profound and honest expression of the creator’s innermost being. That abyss, be it said in passing, is fully explored in the Musée d’Orsay, and constitutes one of the museum’s truest realms of innovation and interest. It is fitting, consequently, that Rodin should be centrally enshrined, since the re-deification of defunct gods is certainly conceived to be an inducement for our excursion through the abyss. Well-meant efforts to restore the reputation of Rodin have not been lacking in the last three decades but all have failed, as Orsay fails, because the sculptor’s major works—The Gate of Hell, Ugolin, The Muse, even Balzac—strain so palpably for greatness that they are undone by the very muscularity, the fustian contortion, of the sculptor’s overpowering talent.
If Rodin fails—despite his polymorphous sex appeal—to rouse our most passionate admiration, then what’s to be said for his successor Bourdelle? Lots of people like his rough-hewn, emotive, preclassical, Herculean statuary. The brooding, dark-browed bust of Beethoven, virtually a Bourdelle trademark, is inevitably present. But we catch no echo of the Eroica. Bourdelle sought his inspiration and placed his creative faith in the immemorial, self-perpetuating continuity of Western civilization, and when it collapsed into anarchy his art was a minor victim. Maillol, his contemporary, less visionary, more down-to-earth, a Mediterranean sensualist, survives a little better precisely by reason of his earthiness, his palpable, perennial delight in the female principle and form. Ponderous, perhaps, a bit obvious in their plenteous pulchritude, Maillol’s Venuses sustain their appeal mainly as objects of aesthetic nostalgia, not as telling innovations in the history of sculpture. The Musée d’Orsay contains a large amount of statuary. The best of it cannot come close to the supreme achievements of the French painters.
Leaving this bulky issue gratefully behind, we come upon more furniture, decorative objects, photographs. There are a few chairs, screens, stained glass windows by Adolf Loos and Frank Lloyd Wright, conscientious evocations of activities that had little to do with Paris and look like afterthoughts. There is even a phonograph record of Caruso singing an aria from Manon. Happily we don’t hear it.
The end is in sight. Some minor but big Vuillards, a couple of effulgent Bonnards, a few Fauves, a Munch, even a Strindberg, lead us to the final, climactic feature of the Orsay experience. It is a brilliant, magisterial effect. It comes, indeed, as close to an expression of genius as the work of the museum curator can hope to come, because it sets a work of genius into the most challenging, provocative, and revealing juxtaposition possible between its own inherent qualities and the qualities of all the works of art that keep it company, while at the same time confronting the viewer with a prodigious synthesis of the aesthetic extravaganza to which it stands as proud climax and epitome. This work, needless to say, is French, pre-eminently a product of the School of Paris, a large, early oil by Henri Matisse entitled Luxe, calme et volupté. No other great artist of his time so thoroughly explored, tested, and mastered his own native tradition as Matisse, then going on to refine, superintend, and glorify it. Matisse is the logical, inevitable, and legitimate descendant of the entire Orsay genealogy, the only one who can in himself in one work sum it all up and with a masterpiece write finis to an enterprise which so appropriately epitomizes itself. By selecting a Matisse to be the ultimate objective of Goethe’s encyclopedic gaze, Françoise Cachin and her colleagues have demonstrated that they saw all along, even if we sometimes may not have, what they were looking for, and that their vision of a museum is the crystallization of a lucid and definitive idea.
Emerging, then, from the Musée d’Orsay, satisfied, indeed sated, blinking a bit to discover that we are only in Paris, after all, do we find the city transfigured by everything we’ve seen? Definitely. The love affair with art has been consummated to an extent that redeems and sublimates even the disappointments and vexations characteristic of any love affair. Without insisting too much or excessive modesty, either, Orsay has so effectively worked itself up to be a cultural compendium combining civic pride with aesthetic clairvoyance that it can look across at the Louvre itself with self-assurance. Paris, not to say the world, will already be wondering how it ever got along without this “total” museological experience. Business, moreover, promises to be bullish. Impressionism is now quoted on the Bourse, and crowds that have no business being in museums like nothing better than museums which have gone into the business of pleasing crowds. The onetime factory of travel has been made over into a factory for entertaining tourists, accommodating large crowds of people who don’t know where they want to go and consequently are in no hurry to get there. Orsay is big, new, unique. It will do the job. And yet . . . when we’ve looked at thirty-four Cézannes and twice that many Monets, all those dancers by Degas, and the Manets and the Renoirs, at this, at that, at Carpeaux, Rodin, and Maillol, let alone the vases by Gallé, the faded copies of Le Petit Journal, French and German military headgear, plus Sarah Bernhardt’s negligee, fan, pocketbook, and opera glasses, do we discover that we have new eyes? Not really. But then . . . one of the lovely lessons of an authentic love affair—and of civilization, too—is study in the art of growing old. And the Orsay experience even includes intimations of how best to do that. Merci!
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 5 Number 7, on page 19
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