Art Meets Style at Paris’s Musée d’Orsay Friday, Oct 12 2012 

Swish new art exhibition featuring the Impressionists and the fashions of the times

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You can almost hear the swish of women’s dresses in the new exhibition “L’Impressionisme et la mode” (Impressionism and Fashion) at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. This groundbreaking show highlights the portrayal of clothing and accessories in the works of late nineteenth century Impressionist painters. It also marks the first time that the Musée d’Orsay has brought fashion and art together, joining the trend at other major museums around the world.

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© RMN (Musée d‘Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

“L’Impressionisme et la mode” reveals how the Impressionists sought to capture emotion of contemporary life in its most daily, simple and fleeting aspects. Both natural and urban settings provided rich sources of inspiration for the modernity of the time. And fashion, as is seen in this exhibition, was an almost inexhaustible Impressionist theme from 1860 to the 1880’s. It was no coincidence that this artistic focus corresponded with the emergence of fashion as a leisure pursuit and the birth of the era’s grands magasins (big department stores).

The exhibition’s first room includes an eye-catching array of dresses and outfits from the fashion collections of the Palais Galliera, Musée de la mode de la ville de Paris and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. Also on display are vintage documents, fashion plates, engravings, catalogues, magazine pages, and photos all chronicling the gaiety of clothing styles during la belle époque. Particularly interesting were two paintings by Paul Cézanne juxtaposed with two pages from the illustrated fashion magazine La Mode illustrée of 1870 to 1871. It turns out that Cézanne copied the two pages almost verbatim, turning them into the painted works Les Deux Soeurs (The Two Sisters) and La Promenade (The Stroll). A great example of art imitating art.

Also visually arresting was the immense portrait by Albert Bartholomé of his wife entitled Dans la serre or Madame Bartholomé (1881). Wearing an elegant day dress of purple and white polka dots and stripes with a pleated skirt, she stands in the doorway of the greenhouse surrounded by plants and flowers. The actual dress worn by Madame Bartholomé in nearly mint condition appears next to the painting itself. It is the only original piece of clothing captured in the art that is still in existence.

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© RMN (Musée d‘Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

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© Musée d‘Orsay, dist. RMN / Patrice Schmidt

Worth admission to the entire exhibition are the two rooms set up as runway fashion shows. World-renowned stage and artistic director Robert Carsen was tapped to create the theatrical ambiance of “Impressionism and Fashion,” and the result is spectacular.* Larger than life portraits of women by Edouard Manet and Claude Monet among others are hung in a row facing wall-sized mirrors. The effect is a series of models ‘moving’ through the red-walled rooms and displaying their finery. To create an ‘audience,’ Carsen includes gilded chairs lining both sides of each salle (room). Small ribbons tie elegant place cards to each seat and include the names of late nineteenth century notables, authors, artists, and social luminaries such as Emile Zola, Marcel Proust, Princesse de Wagram, Robert de Moustesquiou, Edouard Manet, Berthe Morisot, Charles Frederick Worth, Mademoiselle Marie Duplessis, Charles Baudelaire, and the Comtesse Clotilde Bonaparte. Viewers can participate in the performance art by taking a front-row seat and watching the painters’ fashion parade go by. 

“Impressionism and Fashion” also displays paintings of women at home, of women out and about at balls and plays, of women in lighter underthings, of men in their more somber attire as foils for shimmering ladies’ apparel, and also of exquisite accessories such as hats, shoes and fans. More than 90 works by Gustave Caillebotte, Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Georges Seurat in addition to fashion portraitists Alfred Stevens and James Tissot showcase the fashion confections from the period. Every work merits a close look at the play of light and shadow and color on flesh and fabrics.

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© RMN (Musée d‘Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

“Plaisirs du plein air,” at the end of the exhibition, opens into the Orsay’s spacious belle époque ballroom. It has been turned into an outdoor setting with sky blue walls, faux green grass carpeting, park benches, and lighthearted birdsong on soundtrack. Huge canvases such as Monet’s Femmes au jardin (Women in the Garden) and Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Bazille’s Réunion de famille invite the viewer into picture frames of sunny country scenes layered with fluffy skirts and flowing dresses. What could so easily have been a corny setting turns out to be wonderfully compelling and a perfect ending to the show.

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© RMN (Musée d‘Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

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© Musée d‘Orsay, dist. RMN / Patrice Schmidt

When I saw the exhibition last week, I wasn’t sure how I would feel about yet another museum effort devoted to Impressionism. But I walked out thinking how gorgeous and light and fresh the art was. And putting the paintings and fashion together made the artists’ visions much more three dimensional and consequently more real.

“L’Impressionisme et la mode” (curated by Gloria Groom of The Art Institute in Chicago, Guy Cogeval of the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, Philippe Thiébaut of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, and Susan Stein of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) is on view at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris through January 20, 2013. The museum is open daily except Mondays from 9.30am to 6pm and Thursdays until 9.45pm. Admission is €12. The main entrance is located at 1, rue de la Légion d’Honneur, 75007 Paris. www.musee-orsay.fr. No photography is allowed in the exhibition.

French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter

If you aren’t able to catch this exhibition in Paris, then try to see it when it come to the U.S. next year. While the fashions will be different – the Paris pieces are too fragile to travel – the interplay between painting and style will be just as insightful and inspiring. The show will be presented as “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from February 26 to May 27, 2013, and at The Art Institute of Chicago from June 25 to September 22, 2013. 

Catalogue

In the interim, you can dive into the sumptuous exhibition catalogue. The English version will be published later this year. Pre-ordering is available through amazon.com (click here for the link) or you can check the backorder status with The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

* Robert Carsen’s commentary on how he goes about creating the set for a museum exhibition (quoted from the exhibition catalogue):

“Quand on me confie une exposition, j‘essaie de créer un parcours qui aura un contenu intellectuel et un contenu émotionnel pour que la visite soit une expérience, comme une pièce de théâtre, avec un prologue, premier acte, deuxième acte, troisième acte. Il ne manque que les applaudissements ! Et c‘est aussi important que le public fasse partie de l‘expérience. Les musées, comme les théâtres, restent des lieux – dans notre monde où l‘on fait les choses de plus en plus individuellement, avec nos petits ordinateurs, téléphones et autres –, où on se retrouve pour partager une expérience ensemble.”

“When I have been tasked with an exhibition, I try to create a path which appeals to both the intellect and the emotions so that the viewing is an experience, like a play in a theatre, with a prologue, a first act, a second act, a third act. The only thing missing is the applause of the audience! And it’s also important that the public be part of the experience. Museums, like theatres, remain the only places – in our world where everyone does things more and more alone with our little computer, telephones and other devices – where we meet others to share an experience together.”

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The Notebook Aisle (or, Back to school in France) Tuesday, Aug 30 2011 

The French do a lot of things well. A few things that immediately come to mind are art, architecture, literature, fashion, the Paris Métro, technology (yes, technology), wine, and of course, food and cuisine. I would also throw in the French art de vivre, in other words, their style of living. In general, they work to live rather than live to work, and they take time for life in the midst of life.

By the same token, there are some things the French don’t do so well. Examples include habitual cutting in line, the notorious less-than-friendly Parisian (thankfully a disappearing breed!), innovation-numbing bureaucracy, terrible hair highlights, and politicians living like monarchs.

But back to French genius. There is an even more mundane item I would add to the French ‘do well’ list: school supplies. You can see the French talent for organization in all its glory during la rentrée (back to school time) in the fall. The same gene that endowed the French with a spectacular eye for symmetry and order in architecture shows up in the tools students use to étudier (study) and apprendre (learn). Enter any papeterie (stationery store) or the school supplies rayon (department or aisle) in Monoprix (the French equivalent of Target) or department store Galeries Lafayette and you will experience un régal (a fabulous treat) of the organizing kind.

Cahiers (notebooks), agendas (calendars), blocs-notes (notepads), chemises (folders), and classeurs (binders) of every size and shape line the shelves. Many notebooks and pads take on a mathematical air as the French prefer graph paper to lined paper. As I wander theFrench notebook aisles, I am on the verge of dreaming up projects to organize just so I have a reason to stock up on the French paper goodies.

And then I spy the signature sturdy orange covers of the Rhodia brand of pads. The high-quality paper goods have been a French icon for more than 75 years. In fact, Rhodia’s motto is “Orange & black since 1934″. And true to France’s mania for ‘designer collections’ in all things–clothes, shoes, pastries, chocolates, macarons–Rhodia offers its collection of fabulous paper products and more.

Every time I am in France, I stock up on the simple yet oh-so-useful Rhodia pads. I like the small ones that fit in the palm of my hand for grocery and to-do lists. The medium-sized ones are handy to keep in my purse for meeting notes or the spur-of-the-moment brainstorming ideas. And I adore the large ones (close to our 8 ½” by 11″ size) for major projects. Did I mention they are made of graph paper?

I made a major find in the Rhodia section of Galeries Lafayette in Nice in 2008. Not only did they have a smorgasbord of pads, they also carried bound notebooks with elastic closures. And they even came in black. My favorite travel journals are of medium size to fit in my purse, black so they look new despite the wear and tear of travel, and thick enough to handle my musings on the highlights and lowlights of multiple days on the road. But at 14 euros apiece (nearly $25 each), only two of the fantastic Rhodia black journals went home with me on that shopping excursion. 

Next time you are in France, be sure to pick up some Rhodia products–the selection there is quite extensive. But note that French people love Rhodia too so there’s often a run on the classic ‘orange et noir’ around back-to-school time in September.

French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter

Fortunately for Americans, Rhodia now distributes its products in a variety of stores across the U.S. You can visit the web site for a list of retailers who carry Rhodia paper items. Click here to visit the official Rhodia U.S. web site.

Rhodia

Main article originally published October 15, 2008 at www.frenchaffaires.com.