Sunday, May 23, 2010

On the Road Again.....this time San Francisco

We are here for the Opening of “The Birth of Impressionism” paintings loaned from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. The museum was created in a Beaux Arts train station over 20 years ago to present France’s collections of art of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Interestingly, at about the same time, in an effort to centralize access, the Louvre created an underground hall, topped by the now-famed glass pyramid by I.M. Pei, that was turned into the likes of a train terminal with ticket windows and many entrances and exits. So the French managed to turn a train station into a museum and a museum into a train station.

But, thank goodness, both retained their fabulous art collections and now as the d’Orsay has closed its top floor gallery for renovations they have generously allowed their art to go on tour.

We are also here because my wife, Penelope, worked for a decade as curator of European Art for the Portland Art Museum in Oregon. She worked closely with the director, John Buchanan, and his wife Lucy on developing major international exhibitions from France, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, and Russia. Through all that the director’s secret desire was to have a great Impressionist exhibition, the period closest to his training and to his heart. Not every wish is granted and there were several abortive attempts.

Now, as director of the Museums of San Francisco, that dream has finally been realized, in spades, with a fabulous exhibition about the beginnings of Impressionism.

At the opening we spoke with John Buchanan as he was standing with the director of the d’Orsay, Guy Cogeval, and they told us how the show came together. John was in Paris with the President of the Board of the San Francisco Art Museums, Diane Wilsey, at a lunch with Cogeval. They knew each other from previously working together when Cogeval was director in Montreal.

At lunch the d’Orsay director mentioned that his museum was finally going to do a long- anticipated renovation of the impressionist galleries. John suggested/asked if they might be interested in lending since the pictures were to be off view for a long period of time. This did not come as a total surprise since Cogeval was already making plans for a loan show. As John made a date to meet the next day to discuss the possibilities further, his wife, Lucy, was already on the phone getting their return flight reservations changed. They have been married for thirty years this week and Lucy knows what is really important to John!

When they arrived the next day at Mr. Cogeval’s office for their appointment they were presented with a preliminary check list of what was available with an understanding that it was amendable. Since John is not backward about coming forward, he asked to add many more of the museum’s gems. As he put it, “they only told me a couple of times that I was being greedy”. The d’Orsay did ask for a small quid pro quo of the loan of two Monets from San Francisco for their upcoming Monet show now and two Manet’s for the exhibition coming right after that. As much as he did not want to see a few of his treasures leave it was a small price to pay for the loan of over 200 paintings in two clearly defined exhibitions.

The exhibition that has just opened is part one and illustrates the genesis of the style, starting with the huge “grand format” paintings of the Academics, and moving on to introduce the diverse talents of the innovators who showed together in the Impressionist exhibitions. We will have to wait until October to see the development of the style as part two will begin where this exhibition leaves off.

I will let the art critics take off from there but, meanwhile, I look forward to attending the symposium on the exhibition being held in a few days and will report on that next week.