Sunday, December 6, 2015

Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye

There had been discussions for several decades about expanding the original 1972 Louis Kahn building at the Kimbell Museum of Art in Fort Worth Texas, but who wanted to fiddle with perfection?  They finally concluded that a separate building across the Kimbell Campus was the solution.  Since they had had one starchitect to do their first building they decided that they needed another for the addendum and decided on Renzo Piano (1937 - ).  In 2013 the Renzo Piano 101,000 square foot Pavilion opened.  Here is a corner of the Piano Pavilion with the  Kahn building in the background.

In the past when the Kimbell decided to do a special exhibition they would have to put most of the permanent collection in storage.  This was not only a shame for the public but also for academic visitors who wanted to study specific works of art as well.  The Piano Pavilion, as it is called, allows the museum to store far less of their collection and hold the block buster exhibitions that the public now expects while keeping the permanent collection on view in the Kahn building. 

My wife never interferes in which subjects I decide to write about so when she so rarely does, I take note.  She was concerned last week when I wrote about the Kimbell but neglected to mention the wonderful exhibition, "Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye" that I had decided to omit.  Far from it, I thought the show was very much worthy of its own post.

As our group from the Spanish Colonial Museum in Santa Fe drove in their van from Dallas to Fort Worth, the Director, David Setford, gave us a brief history of the artist.  When he mentioned that Caillebotte was only recently re-discovered, I objected stating that I remembered his work from my 1960’s “History of Art” by Horst Jansen which was a standard text for anyone taking Art 1 at college or university.   As soon as I got back home I looked at my early art history books and I was totally wrong.  Caillebotte was either unknown or not thought important enough to write about.

The exhibition is co-curated by Mary Morton, curator and head of French Paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where the show opened, and George T.M. Schackelford, Deputy Director at the Kimbell.  The curators decided to focus on the best years, 1875-1885, in the artist’s short career, making the exhibition a strong one of masterpieces.  I cannot say I fell in love with all of them but I certainly admired many of the 50 paintings shown.  I will concentrate on a few that spoke the loudest to me.

Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894) was a lawyer and engineer before he began his artist training after serving in the Franco-Prussian war 1870-1871.  Afterwards he became a serious art student.  Though part of the group called the Impressionists, his style was generally more realistic.    The most universally known of his works is the large painting in The Art Institute of Chicago,  “Paris Street: Rainy Day” 1877 which is 6 ¾ X 9 feet.  Outside of the exhibition the museum put a large facsimile of the painting where one could pose for a photo under an umbrella.

A slightly less known work is the painting in the Musée D’Orsay in Paris of the “Floor Scrapers”.  This is a painting even earlier in his career, 1875.  He presented it for the Salon of that year but it was rejected by the judges who were shocked by its realism, and not used to seeing city workers as opposed to workers in the fields.  He, therefore, showed it the following year together with the Impressionists many of whom were his fans. This certainly is a realist impressionist!

Not to be missed is the Kimbell’s very own “On the Pont de l’Europe”.  Why the title had to be translated I am not sure, but so be it, the picture, nonetheless, is a masterpiece.  The artist so often seems to grab the viewer and lure him into the picture.  What could those people possibly be looking at? the train on the bridge in the background? the activity in the rail yard below? did something fall on the tracks?

My personal favorites perfectly hung opposite each other are a female “Nude on a Couch” from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and a semi-nude “Man at His Bath” from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  There is nothing lecherous about either one of them, which make them all the more enticing.  You keep waiting: will the man turn around? will the woman summon you?... but that could be male wishful thinking .   They are certainly not the ideal of a nude but neither would I describe them as naked.

The first chapter of Sir Kenneth Clark’s book, “The Nude” is titled “The Naked and the Nude”.  He writes, “To be naked is to be deprived of clothes and the word implies some of the embarrassment which most us feel in that condition.  The word nude, on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone.”  Further on he writes,  “No nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling.".  For me these two pictures qualify in both respects. 

The show will be up through Valentine’s Day 2016, interpret as you will!

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