Le Musée d’Orsay
Le Triomphe des mairies 8, 1987)
Les Concours d’esquisses peintes, 18161863 1986December 14, 1986), and the National Academy of Design, New York (January 13, 1987March 15, 1987).
The railroad station known as the Gare d’Orsay was built for the World’s Fair of 1900 in the very center of Paris as a prestigious display for the Orleans Railroad Company. The bold iron structure, constructed with the most up-to-date technology, was hidden under traditional decoration with profuse ornaments and fashionable murals, all artfully orchestrated by the architect Victor Laloux. It was known as the Orsay Palace, and boasted the city’s most luxurious hotel.
By World War II the station had more or less fallen into disuse. For a while it still housed a suburban railway; then even that was abandoned. Something had to be done with the building—or rather the site, since demolition was the order of the day. Le Corbusier had proposed tearing it down in order to build a skyscraper in its place, not the happiest idea for that particular spot, almost exactly opposite the Louvre across the river. No matter how fervent our admiration for Le Corbusier, we must be thankful that nothing came of this project.
In 1973, the central wholesale market of Paris (les Halles), one of the greatest iron and glass structures of the nineteenth century and the masterpiece of Baltard, was savagely destroyed in the teeth of widespread protest. At the time our ideas of nineteenth-century art were being reassessed, scholarly interest was intense, and “Postmodern” architecture was taking shape. The architecture of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the last gasp of the classicizing tradition, came back into favor. The indignation aroused by the destruction of Baltard’s great work, a symbol of modernism celebrated by Emile Zola in one of his best novels, Le Ventre de Paris, redounded to the advantage of the abandoned railway station. The government agreed to save the building and turn it into a museum of nineteenth-century art.
Ugly as the station may seem, especially the façade, the decision was probably a wise one. Laloux had been sensitive to the site, and his railroad station establishes a strong and effective visual dialogue with the Louvre. Probably no architect of the 1970s would have done so well, and one feared the worst when one considered the monstrosity built on the site of the old Montparnasse railroad station.
Nobody ever contemplated moving the whole nineteenth century out of the Louvre to the Gare d’Orsay. It was always agreed that Jacques-Louis David and his followers were going to stay in the old museum. The year 1848, when important political and artistic changes seemed to coincide, appeared to be a good starting point: the Second Republic and the Realist movement, led by Gustave Courbet, would provide a decisive beginning. This was the original plan when Georges Pompidou was prime minister. He was succeeded by Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who embraced the project wholeheartedly, but insisted that the collection must begin with Delacroix. This reflected the old established idea that modern art began with the Romanticism of 1830. We may surmise also that the Bourgeois Monarchy of Louis Philippe was a more sympathetic government to Giscard than either the Second Republic or the Second Empire that followed three years later. In any case, when the left won the elections in 1981 and François Mitterrand became president, the Revolution of 1848 appeared once again to mark the preferred date.
Only a few of the later works by Delacroix and Ingres have been included in the new Musée d’Orsay, in order to remind the public of their continued presence and productivity in the art world of the Second Empire. The breaking-off point of 1914 is more a historical symbol than an artistic date of any importance. The early twentieth century, in fact, is only sketchily represented. No Cubist works are included and only a few Fauve paintings, which serve as an invitation to visit the museum of modern art in Pompidou’s cultural supermarket at the Plateau Beaubourg.
The new museum is vast and probably nowhere else is so enormous a building entirely devoted to the work of virtually half a century. All the arts are represented, including photography, movies, and architecture; of course, the building itself is a major feature of the collection. Literature and music will be present in lectures, conferences, and concerts. The socialist government even appointed a historian, Madeleine Rébérioux, as vice-president, in order to introduce a much wider cultural and educational scope to the museum. But her plans for exhibiting a locomotive were frustrated, and what we have is decidedly a museum of art. Even the examples of decorative arts all belong to high culture, to the most sophisticated kinds of design and craft. History has been relegated to a few educational displays, clearly distinct from the high-class objects on show.
The cultural policy of the French government is astonishing. During the last few years we have seen the opening of the cultural center at Beaubourg, the Picasso museum, a vast cultural complex at La Villette to cover up the embarrassment of a disastrous wholesale meat market that had to be closed down only a few years after it had been opened, the permanent installation of the Guillaume-Walter collection of early-twentieth-century art at the Orangerie, the new Musée d’Orsay, and a feverish schedule of exhibitions in Paris. This cultural program is considered essential to the personal prestige of the political figures who are directly involved, as we have seen in the case of Orsay, and it has become an important aspect of public life in a way unthinkable in the United States. Few cultural events have ever had the kind of international publicity surrounding the opening of this museum; the crowds line up for three hours to get in.
The creation of the Musée d’Orsay is an important moment in the history of recent attempts to rehabilitate the academic or “official” art of the nineteenth century. For this once despised (and still despised) style, Orsay is both a triumph and a failure. It is a triumph, in that the academic grandes machines have at last returned from their hiding place in the reserves of the Louvre and the attics of provincial town halls to reappear on the walls in what is hoped will be a permanent installation. The failure lies in the refusal of those in control at Orsay to carry out the ultimate dream of the admirers of “official” art and hang these pictures mixed in with the works of the so-called modern tradition, of Impressionism and Postimpressionism, and so obliterate all distinction between conservative and avant-garde art. The pompiers—including such painters as Jean-Léon Gérôme and Jean Paul Laurens—are largely hung separately, segregated on the right side of the great central alley on the ground floor, which was devoted to everything before 1870. The “official” art after 1870, including Fernand Cormon and Benjamin Constant (not the novelist), for example, is given a floor to itself, below the large display devoted to the “modern tradition.” The decision to segregate was certainly a wise one: the juxtaposition of “official” and avant-garde artists has been tried, and it is always a disaster, degrading for the avant-garde and crushing for the academic.
Both the triumph and the failure seem to us definitive. No one contests the historical interest of showing some samples of “official” works—even if their aesthetic interest still seems dubious to most scholars and amateurs. The recent neoconservative success in reinstalling the pompiers, of making them visible once again, is probably permanent. However, the way the neoconservative bandwagon has ground to a halt also appears permanent. None of the many exhibitions of “official” art mounted in the last few years have succeeded in awakening much public interest, or even, in fact, much scholarly delight. The recent shows of Bouguereau in Paris, Hartford, and Montreal and of Flandrin in Paris have drawn a disappointingly small public, shockingly small, in fact, when compared with the recent exhibitions of the established masters of the avant-garde. The 1983 Manet retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris and the Van Gogh exhibition currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York attracted such large crowds that viewing them became unpleasant. The critical success of the Renoir exhibition in Boston in 1986 is perhaps even more significant since he has been the most often denigrated representative of the modern movement. Bouguereau has been the object of much recent attention from scholars and dealers, and his pictures once again command high prices; he had as much chance of attracting public interest as any other “official” artist, perhaps indeed more than any other including Meissonier, Delaroche, and Gérôme; yet his work aroused little response.
The lack of enthusiasm among scholars is striking, with a few exceptions. There has been a lot of research on the pompier in the past decade, but little passion, as if “official” art were a field to be exploited rather than a cause to be taken up. No one with any appreciation of Manet and Van Gogh has claimed for Gérôme the stature of Manet, or declared Bouguereau the equal of Van Gogh. This is, in part, because the movement is less an attempt to enhance appreciation of the pompiers than to destroy the supremacy of the avant-garde, and to discredit the mythical genealogy that leads from Delacroix and Courbet toward the great modern movement, and from the successive waves of avant-garde styles to the present. For many prominent reactionary French critics, the enemy is not Manet or even Matisse but Jackson Pollock and New York Expressionism. The rehabilitation of the pompiers has its political side as well, which fits the conservative trend of recent years.
One of the few scholars with a fiercely burning and sincere passion for “official” art is Thérèse Burollet, director of the Musée de Petit Palais, who has mounted an exhibition, shown in conjunction with the opening of Orsay, of the sketches for the decoration of the mairies, the local town halls for each administrative sub-section of Paris and its suburbs. This is “official” art, indeed, if anything can be called that, and it is not a show that presents many artistic surprises, although it is undoubtedly edifying, and was well worth visiting before seeing the Musée d’Orsay. One is struck, for example, by the idiosyncratic works of Albert Besnard, whose painting for the central town hall, Truth Carrying the Sciences in its Train Spreads Light on Mankind, looks remarkably, if superficially, like the slightly later decorations for the University of Vienna by Gustav Klimt. It is interesting that, like Klimt, Besnard was attacked, and largely for the same reasons: incomprehensibility, violence of color, and radical stylization. (The logic of history, in this case, makes a pompier significant by turning him into an avant-garde artist, and Besnard, indeed, constantly flirted with the more radical styles.)
The exhibition at the Petit Palais has social interest as well. For the town hall of suburban Saint-Maur, Paul Milliet proposed a picture of virtues and vices, the latter consisting not only of debauchery, lust (volupté), degradation, and misanthropy, but of sterility and celibacy as well—the French state needed to renew its reserves of cannon fodder after the Franco-Prussian War. Artists were encouraged to illustrate the activities of the neighborhood, and for the twelfth arrondissement Joseph Mazerolle proposed a Triumph of Bacchus for this working-class district. The subjects of the decorations were always uplifting: work, marriage, family life, civic virtue. This is clearly one of the more seductive aspects of official decoration, and Thérèse Burollet brings this out in the catalog: