Van Gogh, Gaugin, Cézanne, and Beyond, SF

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne, and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay

De Young Museum
San Francisco
Sept. 25, 2010 – Jan. 18, 2011
(San Francisco is the only North American venue for this exhibition.)

Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night Over the Rhone” is among the
post-Impressionist masterpieces in the show.

The magnificent “Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne, and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay” is the second of two remarkable exhibitions lent to the de Young Museum of San Francisco by the most important repository of French 19th- and early 20th-century art –– Paris’ renowned Musée d’Orsay.

The first splendid collection, “Birth of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay,”  closed on Sept. 6, 2010, having drawn 431,817 visitors to the de Young in San Francisco in just less than four months. (It will be on display at Nashville’s Frist Center for the Visual Arts from Oct. 15 through Jan. 23.) The new “Post-Impressionist Masterpieces,” also in San Francisco for less than four months, should attract even more art lovers.

The Musée d’Orsay was originally an imposing train station created for the Paris International Exposition of 1900. It was transformed into one of France’s foremost museums in 1986. While it undergoes a partial closure for refurbishment in anticipation of the museum’s 25th anniversary in 2011, San Francisco Bay Area denizens and visitors are now blessed with the second of two once-in-a-lifetime visual, emotional and intellectual experiences.

This beautiful assembly includes over 100 paintings from the Musée d’Orsay’s permanent collection of post-Impressionist works and highlights the work of preeminent artists including late Impressionist work by Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, followed by the more individualistic styles of the post-Impressionist masters including Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent Van Gogh, Pierre Bonnard, Henri Rousseau, Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, and Édouard Vuillard.

The post-Impression movements were formed after the final Impressionist group exhibition in 1886. France’s newest avant-garde artists engaged with and reacted to Impressionism. They introduced various fresh and expressive developments arising out of Impressionism’s two-dimensional surface effects and symbolic content.

Unlike “Birth of Impressionism,” which followed a simple linear trajectory from the Salon painters to Manet and then to the Impressionists, “Post-Impressionist Masterpieces” elucidates its several and interconnecting schools, including neo-Impressionism, Symbolism, Cloisonnism, Synthetism, the Pont-Aven School, and the Nabis.

Amid these shifting personal and artistic allegiances emerged two primary trends: the pursuit of formal values (as seen in Cézanne and Seurat’s analyses and reconstructions of the world around them) and the vivid expression of inner worlds (epitomized by the work of Van Gogh and Gauguin).

The post-Impressionists’ new balance among style, technique, identifiable subject matter, and subjective meaning ushered in the 20th Century art’s abstraction and subjectivity. To illustrate the point, Cezanne’s 1896 formal still life, “Nature morte aux oignons,” is placed across the room from Picasso’s cubist 1917 still life, “Grande nature morte.”

Because the exhibition is divided among the various post-Impressionist schools, it is more difficult to navigate intellectually through the rooms in this collection than in the prior one. This is my only slightly unenthusiastic comment and I worked hard to find it.

The exhibition has been curated with intelligence and artistry. The rooms are much larger than in “Birth of Impressionism”; they have been painted a deep brown color that enhances but doesn’t overpower the art. Each painting is dramatically lit to bring out its magic. Large significant works are placed so that they can be seen before one enters each room. I was one among many press members who gasped at first glimpsing Van Gogh’s dramatic “Starry Night Over the Rhone,” with its thickly daubed luminous yellow stars hanging in the deep blue night sky and reflecting in the water below.

Only a few times in my life have I experienced the Stendhal syndrome (also known as hyperkulturemia and Florence syndrome) — rapid pulse, confusion or dizziness after being exposed to a sensory overload of beauty. One occasion was upon first seeing Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère” at the old Courtauld Institute of Art in London. Luckily, a bench had been placed directly in front of the painting or I might have fallen. Another time was last week when I first viewed “Starry Night Over the Rhone.”

The new de Young Museum building, completed in 2005 and designed by Herzog & de Meuron, has become the fifth most visited art museum in the United States (after, in order, New York’s Metropolitan, Washington D.C.’s National Gallery, New York’s MOMA, and Chicago’s Art Institute). Much credit for the growth of the museum and for memorable exhibits including Post-Impressionist Masterpieces should be given to Diane B. Wilsey, president of the Board of Trustees of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (comprising the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park and the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park) and John E. Buchanan Jr., director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

“Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne, and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay” packs tremendous visual, emotional, and intellectual wallop. So San Franciscans, please do not take the de Young for granted; and visitors, please plan your trip now to see this memorable and beautiful exhibit.
(Text and photo ©Emily S. Mendel 2010. All Rights Reserved.)

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