August 25, 2009 / 5:33 PM / 8 years ago

Musee d'Orsay art heads abroad during renovation

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters Life!) - Art from the City of Light is coming to the City by the Bay.

<p>Visitors look out through the glass clock face at the Musee d'Orsay towards the Sacre Coeur in Paris November 3, 2005. REUTERS/Toby Melville</p>

In its largest-ever such loan, Paris’ famed Musee d‘Orsay is lending out some of the most revered masterpieces of 19th and early 20th century art in two exhibits that will both visit San Francisco as they tour the globe next year.

“It’s like a walk through the perfect picture book of Impressionism and post-Impressionism,” said John Buchanan Jr., director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, whose de Young Museum will showcase the two exhibits back-to-back.

The Musee d‘Orsay, the world’s largest repository of Impressionist and post-Impressionist art, is closing half its galleries starting in November to prepare for a year-long renovation of the Paris museum that turns 25 in 2011.

Rather than send most works to storage, the president of the museum, Guy Cogeval, opted for the unprecedented tour.

“Since the opening of the Orsay, we have never sent so many masterpieces all together,” Cogeval said during a visit to San Francisco. “We can be proud of such a selection because it represents perfectly the Musee d‘Orsay.”

EMBARRASSMENT OF RICHES

The first exhibit, “The Birth of Impressionism” focuses on 1874, the year of the first organized exhibition in Paris by a group of independent artists who sought a more spontaneous way to depict modernity.

Buchanan called the first exhibit “an embarrassment of riches.” It includes works from realists like Caillebotte, Courbet and Millet, masterpieces like “The Fifer” by Manet, as well as paintings by Degas, Monet, Renoir and American artist Whistler, who painted in France midway through the century.

“It was an incredible profusion of painting styles that were occurring simultaneously, all in the same city. That’s what always boggles my mind,” Buchanan said.

Besides San Francisco, where the show opens in May, the exhibit travels to Madrid and Nashville.

The second exhibit, “Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne and Beyond” which will also be shown in Canberra and Tokyo, features seven works each by the first two artists, including Van Gogh’s “Bedroom in Arles” and “Arearea,” Gauguin’s idealized depiction of Tahiti. Works by Toulouse-Lautrec, Bonnard, Vuillard and Rousseau’s “The Snake Charmer” are also part of the exhibit.

Cogeval, also an art historian, said his favorite painting in the exhibit is Vuillard’s “Jardins Publiques,” a Japanese-inspired work in five panels that depicts children and their nannies enjoying a day in the park.

“(They) are for me the quintessence of the turn of the century spirit. The painting is such a virtuoso example of what artists can do,” he explained.

The renovation of the Musee d‘Orsay, built inside an old railway station, had been on Cogeval’s mind since he took over the top spot in the museum last year.

Nothing had changed in the two decades since he began his career as an intern at the Orsay, and some elements of the museum were less than ideal, he said, such as stone floors that amplified footsteps, indirect light in some galleries or too-harsh direct sunlight in others.

Moreover, Cogal said he was determined to shake up a curatorial torpor that had set in. He dragged works out of storage that had never before been seen, painted walls of certain galleries dramatic shades of purple, red and olive green, and -- “the unthinkable!” -- began double-hanging paintings.

The renovation, to be done by March 2011, will transform the upper galleries and sub-divide part of the lofty space into five stories to add 25,000 square feet.

But does the flurry of activity keep Cogeval up at night?

“I’ve been waiting all my life for this since I was a young curator,” said Cogeval. “I‘m extremely happy with what I do.” (Reporting by Alexandria Sage; editing by Patricia Reaney)

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