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Derain, Balthus, and Giacometti: An Artistic Friendship, MUSEE D’ART MODERNE DE LA VILLE DE PARIS, 2 June – 29 October 2017.
Being Modern: MOMA in Paris. FONDATION LOUIS VUITTON, 11 October 2017 - 5 March 2018.
It was a quiet summer Sunday afternoon in Pine Plains. David had just gone off to jazz camp in Vermont. I settled down for some reading. Sitting in the very comfortable leather chair, with my lovely little dog Ula at my side, I dove into Jed Perl’s very positive review of an exhibition of Derain, Balthus, and Giacometti, at the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris. Click here for a link to that article.
Perl called it "a show packed with ravishments and revelations."
I was enchanted. Perl wrote that the show offered a new and important way of looking at the work of these French artists, through the lens of their artistic and personal friendship. The exhibition addressed themes near and dear to my heart; themes like the relationship between traditional and modern art, the relationship between art and reality, the relevance of art to the world in which the artist finds herself, and the ability of modern art to transcend any individual artist's emotional needs and limitations. I was hooked, convinced that I had to see this show before I could seriously take up the paint brush again. Sadly, the show was closing in just a few months and we were already fully booked for our fall travel schedule. I needed to stop dreaming and be content just to read about the exhibition, and keep painting without the help of the trio of art friends.
But then, only hours later, I received a text from David. During a break between jam sessions, he wrote: “Vers, Pont du Gard. Check out this town in France.” A phone call followed and revealed that there was soon to be another jazz camp, this one for a week in the south of France. It was to be held in a lovely home in a beautiful Provence setting, music all day everyday with musicians from the U.S. and France, all meals provided by the home owner/chef, excursions to places like Avignon, opportunity for me to draw and paint in the French countryside, and Ula was welcomed to come too. While we were in France, we could visit Paris again and take up a friend’s standing invitation to stay at her beautiful apartment in a perfect part of Paris. I was on my way to that yearned for museum show! The plan: Fly into Paris on the amazingly reasonable Norwegian Air, an overnight there, train to Avignon, a week of jazz in the south (village in Vers), a week in Paris, fly back to New York.
From Paris to the South of France
What a sky over one of John Singer Sargent's most impressive painting spots! We had less than a full day in Paris before we headed south, but we used it well. This photo is from our long and easy stroll in the Luxembourg Gardens (long and easy, that is, until we got busted by a cute Paris policeman who told us dogs were allowed only in one small quadrant of the Gardens). The photo shows the wonderful weather that blessed us through our two week stay. No need for those turtlenecks or umbrellas that we packed.
Early the next morning, on a Sunday in Paris without cars but thankfully, with taxis; we left from the Gare de Lyon on the fast and comfortable TGV train to Avignon. Here is a view of the train station from Ula's perspective:
They sure look happy, don't they? Well, we were all very happy. The view from the train was stunning. Morning clouds lifted to reveal a bright blue sky. Field after field was a beautiful green. So special is how in the midst of vast green expanses and masses of trees, small clusters of village buildings emerge. It all looks just right. The placement of the trees on the landscape, the purple mountains in the distance, etc. --- it is like a perfect still life arrangement. There are even scattered gatherings of white cows, perfect inspiration for the painting I am working on. David read, Suzanne wrote and sketched, and Ula gathered her thoughts. Here is some of what Ula was thinking on that train ride:
"I did it again. I wowed them with my great travel skills. Suzanne put me in my red bag at JFK and didn't take me out until we left Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. Not a peep was heard from me on that flight, not even when that noisy baby was crying and crying. I am now doing my calm and quiet routine on the train. I love it when taxi drivers and train conductors tell me that I am the best dog traveler they have ever met. About Paris, I like it so far. I can sit outside in cafes and restaurants where very efficient waiters bring me handsome bowls of water (l'eau sans gas). French dogs seem nice. A quick hello is okay for them and their owners, not like New York where dogs and their owners have hurt feelings if I don't want to sniff and play forever. Sylvie's apartment in Paris is big with just enough places for me to settle into. It has good smells. The cat, Theo, who lived there for many years. must have had a good life. So now, we are off to Provence. They tell me there is a big, friendly dog there. We will see how that goes. In the meantime, we travel. I watch Suzanne. She sure does love these landscapes!"
We all stayed very happy on the train until about 2:45. Then, everything stopped. We came to a halt at an unscheduled station. An announcement: An incident requiring police intervention was changing everything on all the trains. No trains were being allowed in or out of Marseille station (our train's final stop). No one knew how long we would be kept from moving. What had been a very quiet car came to life. Just about everyone began consulting their phones and other devices. People shared news. The incident involved stabbings at the train station in Marseille, two young women were killed, the police had gunned down one man, the accused. The level of tension on the train was high. There have been too many incidents like this one in France and elsewhere. As hours passed, the car became quiet again. We sat and waited, David read, I wrote and drew, including a little notebook sketch of David reading.
Jazz in Vers
Back to Paris
On Tuesday, the first day of its opening since our arrival in Paris, I made my first of two visits to the exhibition, "Derain, Balthus, Giacometti: An Artistic Friendship." Here are the three artists in self-portraits. With those faces and that stance, one can be sure one is in for something special in this exhibit of more than 350 pieces.
"All of the art of the past, every age, every civilization, arises before me, everything is simultaneous as if space were taking the place of time."
Indeed, what is displayed in first rooms of the exhibit show that these supreme modernists had a special connection to the art of the past. They were not overthrowing the past; but finding new ways to let their art be energized by the past. Giacometti draws wonderful copies of classical sculptures, Derain is said to have been converted by the art he saw in Rome, Balthus discovers Piero della Francesca. All three discover the marvels of art from Oceania and Africa. Most touching for me were Balthus' copies of Piero's frescoes for The Legend of the True Cross series.
"Inside the studio ... the creative process with its retouches, its restarts, and its acts of destruction, stands apart from the passage of time." Giacometti, 1956
"The studio is the work place ... the place for crafting...I remember Giacometti's.
Magical, cluttered with objects, materials, papers, and that general impression of being in the close proximity of secrets." Balthus, 2001
I think that this painting/self-portrait by Derain of the artist in his studio reveals some of his secrets. The painting is filled with references to and symbols employed in traditional still life painting across the ages; but it is also very much a painting of the artist at his home, in a domestic space. Derain breaks the boundary between studio and home.
The last part of the exhibit, entitled "Coming to Grips with Darkness," changes the tone again. It brings us back to our three artists as they set traditional themes into very dark contexts. As Jed Perl aptly put it, this is an exhibition about the melancholy of modernism. The times in which these artists lived was not an easy one, and they certainly saw and knew that. The challenge they took up was how to create a new art suitable to their time, and simultaneously an art that drew on the past, the past of their own and other cultures.
We are back here to that struggle to both find, plumb the mystery of, and depict a very harsh reality, a struggle that we have seen over and over in this exhibition. We also see the humanity, sincerity, and rigorous order with which the artists pursue their struggle. The works displayed show the courage to create beauty in a world whose darkness and despair they very, very clearly see. As the title for this room says, they have come to grips with the darkness. The painting that best makes the point that they see some hope and light in the darkness is this still life by Derain. This is a painting that has made it through the struggle, the struggle we all face. The white lines are indeed the light that overcomes the darkness.
At the very end of the exhibit, we find a quotation by Derain on the last wall. Like the one from Giacometti, it has to do with time.
"The mind knows neither past nor future; the mind is an immense present."
This line reminded me of the Buddhist saying that goes something like: Every moment that we live, as we live it, contains every moment that has happened before it and every moment that will happen after it. Thinking of Derain's words with that in mind, I hear Derain saying that in making paintings, he seeks to include all of what we know and might know as art. Certainly, in looking at his work, I could see so many earlier painters -- Rubens, Delacroix, Corot, Renoir, Cezanne, and so many Italian painters from the early and late Renaissance and Baroque periods. To the extent that his paintings also show the search for something new (Giacometti calls Derain "the most audacious of them all"), his work is avant garde and points towards paintings that are yet to be painted. I left the exhibit with lots to think about, and, even more important, lots to paint with and for. My museum visit blessed me with more sources of inspiration and a greater sense of responsibility to paint.
Remember that review that started all of this. When I returned home to New York, I reread Jed Perl's review. Having seen the work he wrote about, I could appreciate his comments even more than I had at first reading, especially that very powerful last section and line of his essay. He describes the exhibition of Derain, Balthus, and Giacometti at the Museum of Modern Art as a corrective and response to much of what is to be regretted about the current state of art and art history -- the too easy equation of a particular artist's style or sensitivity with a particular political tendency (as in the identification of Picasso's classicism during the years of World War I with the later Fascist and Nazi attraction to classicism), the winks that too many contemporary artists seem driven to put into their art pieces, the excessive irony and skepticism. In answer to all of those, the show in Paris
"responds with a clearheadedness and an intrepid confidence rare in the museum
world. What we have here is nothing less than another side of the great modern
adventure. That Derain, Balthus, and Giacometti are so absolutely insistent on
rejecting irony in favor of sincerity and magic in favor of metaphysics gives this
exhibition a particular urgency in our own dark times." (Perl, 2017, NYRB)
Five More Glorious Days in Paris
This museum visit over the course of two days certainly made the trip to Paris worthwhile, but it was not the last wonderful experience. More museums, visits with friends, great restaurants, markets, a little shopping, wonderful walks through many sections of Paris, and even some Chinese movement joyfully filled our hours. Here are just a couple of highlights.
I wrote above about attending Qi Gong classes in the south. We did the same in Paris. Right across the street from the Museum of Modern Art, on a terrace of the Palais Galliera, we had a terrific early morning Qi Gong class with our artist friend, GAP. (I have written about GAP. in an earlier blog on this website, click here to see that blog). She is a vigorous and inspiring teacher. Following class, we visited GAP.'s wonderful studio, and had a lovely coffee with her and her gracious husband, Robert. They live in an apartment filled with art and other signs of a wonderful life. It is a another perfect Paris apartment. We are blessed with friends who share how much they love where they live. Here is a photo of a new wall in GAP.'s studio that she built with her son to house her work. An amazing amount of work!
Towards the end of the week, our good friend David Frost who is now teaching in London took the chunnel train to come and spend a few days with us. It's astonishing to me that one can travel from London to Paris in less than 2 1/2 hours, that's the same amount of time it takes to get from Manhattan to Pine Plains. Hmm. We visited together the Louis Vuitton Museum, in the Bois de Boulogne where Paris meets Neuilly-sur-Seine, a trip strongly recommended by our Parisian friend, Sylvie. The building for the museum is a fantastic Frank Gehry structure.
The current exhibit in the museum is a show entitled, "Being Modern: MoMA in Paris." I confess that when I saw that title, I said to myself: "I came all the way to Paris to see pieces from New York?" As soon as I entered the exhibit, all disappointment and skepticism vanished. It is a terrific exhibition, especially for anyone with an attachment to MoMA's history in New York. It is not only that some of the most wonderful pieces from MoMA that we have come to know and love are on display.
There are also some very special pieces that one does not usually get to see in New York; most notably, pieces from MoMA's film archives. But best about the show for me was the way it enabled a reconnection with the famous New York museum. The Vuitton Foundation presents a view of what MoMA is an institution that I haven't appreciated for a long time. It tells a compelling and cohesive story about the place, with regard to its origin story and mission. I no longer recognize those when I visit MoMA in New York. These days, MoMa feels just too big, with too many people, caught in unending renovations that never seem to help, without a clear display of its physical, social, and cultural orientation. The Paris exhibit makes clear that it was not always that way.
There is a marvelous room on the first floor of the exhibit that tells the history of MoMA from 1929 to 1968, through documents, photographs, and film. It makes clear that at the very beginning, the development of MoMA was in the hands of a very small group, three women, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Lillie P. Bliss, and Mary Quinn Sullivan; joined by Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the first director. In this display, one feels that the museum was on a human scale, with key decisions made and a shared vision created by specific people. Maybe there were some, I emphasize some, good things about the good old days.
On exhibit are over 200 works from the 1880s to the present day, arranged chronologically. We successfully made our way through only a very small piece of this. After the American abstract expressionists, I knew I would need to return for at least one more visit, on another trip.
Early in our stay, I wrote to our Paris friend, Sylvie, to tell her that I had been mistaken for a Parisian twice on my first morning walk with Ula. Sylvie replied that I look too happy to be taken for a Parisian. She explained that to look like a Parisian, I would need not only to wear black but learn how to sigh and complain all the time. Well, after she told me that, I indeed heard many sighs and complaints from Parisians. This was not true for all Parisians, but for many that I met in shops or other public spaces. Whenever I said we came from New York, the reaction was always something like: "Oh I love New York, it's not like Paris. Paris is just cute, it's a museum. New York is a real city." Then they added some version of "Everything is possible in New York, nothing ever changes in Paris, you can't do with your life in Paris what you could do in New York." I would walk away thinking, I could do with a little more cute; and wondering whether most people who live in New York think everything is possible.
On a more serious note was the difference I saw between New Yorkers and Parisians (and people in the south of France too) in how they spoke about Donald Trump as president. In the U.S., in the circles in which I usually find myself, I have become accustomed to people starting their laments about our current political situation cautiously and calmly; but then, they quickly speed up, listing a whole set of things that are wrong, in a very agitated tone. What started as a group sharing a nice dinner together is whipped into an anger filled mob with back and forth between everyone there about how awful Trump and his administration are. This goes on until we are all just too tired to say anymore. In France, on the hand, the mood is much more somber and dark and quiet. They say simply that they are very fearful about what might happen because of this U.S. president. They are as informed, if not better informed, then we are about what is happening in the U.S.; and they are scared. This difference, I think, has to do with differences in life experiences. People in France, they themselves or the generations immediately before them, directly experienced the horrors of totalitarianism in the forms of fascism, nazism, and communism. They lived through World War II. They know better what to fear.