Photo of the Week

Paris-Update-Louvre-evening

The Louvre lights up. © Paris Update

 

Paris Update This Week’s Events

For full details about an event, click on the title to visit the official Web site (in English when available).

French film with English subtitles
> Lost in Frenchlation shows Hélène Angel's Primaire. Cinéma Le Brady, Paris, Feb. 24

Virtual reality on show
> Virtuality will host speakers and networking sessions on this hot topice. Centquatre, Paris, Feb. 24-26.

Contemporary textile art
>Miniartextil is an exhibition of new textiles from around the world. Le Beffroi, Montrouge, Feb. 22-March 19.

A barnyard in Paris

ParisUpdate-cow
> The Salon International de l'Agriculture brings the best of the country's livestock and crops and the products made from them to Paris. Porte de Versailles, Paris, Feb. 25-March 5.

Before and after ecological disaster
> The Chic Planète festival presents two types of films, those celebrating the bounty of the earth and science-fiction views of what will happen after an ecopalypse. Forum des Images, Paris, March 1-April 13.

Paris semi-marathon
> Starts and ends on the Esplanade du Château de Vincennes, March 5.

French film with English subtitles
> Lost in Frenchlation shows Matthew Lancit's Flâneurs (Street Rambles). Cinéma MacMahon, Paris, March 3.

Literary conversations
> The festival New Writings, New Styles brings well-known Irish and French writers together to discuss contemporary literature in the two countries. Irish Cultural Centre, Paris, March 3-4.

Indian film scene
> The festival India Express takes a tour of new and classic films focusing on the subcontinent’s major cities. Forum des Images, Paris, through Feb. 26.

Young European photographers
> The Festival Circulation(s) features emerging photographers. Centquatre, Paris, through March 5.

Frank Capra Retrospective
> The great American director in the spotlight. Cinémathèque Française, Paris, through Feb. 27.

 

Art - Temporary Exhibitions

 

Le Douanier Rousseau: L’Innocence Archaïque

Missing Link in the
Birth of Modernism?

ParisUpdate-Orsay-01. Douanier Rousseau Charmeuse de seprent

“La Charmeuse de Serpents” (1907). © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski

When Guy Cogeval was campaigning for a third term as president of the Musée d’Orsay this year, one of his strongest arguments was his record as a producer of money-pulling blockbuster art shows. His reappointment this month by President François Hollande (top state museums are political patronage plums) has duly been followed by another high-octane display, “Le Douanier Rousseau: Archaic Innocence.”

Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) has caught the collective imagination as an exotic, enigmatic conjurer of enchanted forests haunted by noble savages and dream beasts – like his contemporary Paul Gauguin, a voyager returned with strange stories from distant lands. That reputation is as illusory as his art, since he never went anywhere more exotic than the Paris botanical gardens. Even his nickname, Le Douanier, pinned on him by his japing friend Alfred Jarry, is illusory, since he wasn’t a customs officer dealing with exotic imports, just a clerk in a Paris tax office.

This doesn’t fundamentally matter, since his art speaks clearly for his genius. The problem is that in the now near-mandatory curatorial trope, this exhibition has ambitions not just to showcase the art, but to build a case for the artist as a pivotal figure in cultural history – a sort of “missing link” in the evolutionary emergence of modern art. So, the show packages some 46 paintings by Rousseau in a wrapping of 54 works by earlier and later painters, presented as sources and acolytes, and a suite of densely researched explanatory curatorial texts.

The texts make the case quite persuasively – the show’s worth a visit just for those; the paintings less so.

The problem with the paintings is twofold. First, the whole transmission argument rests on a fallacy; crudely put, it goes “Carlo Cenna painted a family in a horse-drawn buggy in 1882; Rousseau painted a family in a horse-drawn buggy in 1908; Carlo Carra

ParisUpdate-Orsay-05. Douanier Rousseau La Carriole du Père Junier

“La Carriole du Père Junier” (1908). © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée de l’Orangerie)/Franck Raux

painted a man driving a horse-drawn buggy in 1916; so Rousseau was the link between 19th-century Romantic Primitivism and 20th-century Futurism.” Or, “Rousseau paints

ParisUpdate-Orsay-10. Douanier Rousseau Les Pêcheurs à la ligne

“Les Pêcheurs à la Ligne” (1908-09). © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée de l’Orangerie)/Hervé Lewandowski

a primitive airplane into a picture of guys fishing, so Rousseau is a prophet of modernism.”

Reader, go see and make up your mind. This writer finds the argument less than convincing.

The other problem is that a lot of the paintings are, truthfully, quite mediocre. Certainly, the show includes great masterpieces – the weirdly balletic 1908 “Footballers,” a sort of four-man rugby dance set in a woodland boxing ring; the hallucinatory intensity of the jungle paintings; the mysticism of “The Dream,” painted in the year of Rousseau’s death; the dramatic intensity of the 1894

ParisUpdate-Orsay-14. Douanier Rousseau La Guerre

“La Guerre” (c. 1894). © Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Patrice Schmidt

allegorical painting “War.” But these are drowned in lesser works – minor works by Rousseau; minor works by minor artists, larded with a few minor works by major artists.

A lot of these minor works are by Italian painters; nothing wrong with that per se, but it indicates a selective vision, possibly reflecting the fact that the exhibition is a joint venture with Italian backers and was shown in Venice last year.

Strangely, if these lesser works show one thing very clearly, it’s that Rousseau, a largely self-taught painter, couldn’t paint.

From a purely painterly perspective, his handling of brush and medium comes across as flat, textureless, uniform, technically inferior even to the work of the hack artists keeping him company.

And yet, none of that matters. In the end, what does come through, despite everything, is the genius of his imagination. In demonstrating his ability to channel a vision, a concept, transcending painterly representation, and his ability to simplify and concentrate form and color, the show does convincingly set him up as a true pioneer of modern artistic practice.

A blockbuster? Perhaps not. But still worth seeing.

Brian Childs

Musée d’Orsay: 1, rue de la Légion d’Honneur, 75007 Paris. Métro: Solferino. RER: Musée d’Orsay. Tel.: 01 40 49 48 14. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m., until 9:45 p.m. on Thursday. Closed Monday. Admission: €12. Through July 17, 2016. www.musee-orsay.fr

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More reviews of Paris art shows.

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