Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Orsay par Julian Schnabel

Julian Schnabel between van Gogh and himself.
I always admire museums that invite contemporary discussions of their historical collections. It seems especially courageous of the Musée d’Orsay to invite an artist such as Julien Schnabel to engage with its collections given that, at face value, his work appears to be derisory of the history of art, particularly when it is a history that is as entrenched as the one we think of being displayed by the Musée d’Orsay.

Théodule Ribot’s Le bon Samaritain, vers 1870
However, after seeing Schnabel’s curation of paintings from the museum’s collections side by side with his own, I realized how quick I am to jump to conclusions about the art in the Musée d’Orsay. Because the Monets, Manets Van Goghs and Courbets find their way on to placemats, tea towels, silk scarves and mouse pads, I think I have seen them all too often. However, these images are poor reproductions that should not be associated with their originals. Indeed, Schnabel gives us a whole new perspective on a number of works by the museum’s celebrated artists. And in this, he offers a new perspective on the works themselves, and along the way, on the history of art, and on historical art.
Carolus-Duran, Le Convalescent, vers 1860
For all the intellectual enlightenment usually associated with the paintings Schnabel has chosen as companions to his own, the visitor to this exhibition will be struck by their emotional outpourings. And to be precise, the emotions are all those of suffering men. There is enormous pain, agony and plain old melancholy in works such as Théodule Ribot’s Le bon Samaritain, (vers 1870) a naked man fallen by the wayside, but not dead. Even the Fantin-Latour still life example on display, Chrysanthèmes dans un vase (1873) is filled with sadness and melancholy. Schnabel places the Ribot’s fallen man next to the extraordinarily moving image of a man who is hurt but not dead in a glorious red bed shirt by Carolus Duran. Above the two images, Schnabel places his own Accatone (1978) mimicking the red, the sick and castrated through limbs in residuum on a nevertheless powerful male torso. In Schnabel’s installation, the history of art has not been kind to ailing men and their sickly—yet powerful—bodies.
Henri Fantin-Latour, Chrysanthèmes dans un vase, 1873
Fantin-Latour’s flowers against a blank background sit together with Courbet’s enormously tender self portrait and Monet’s turkeys. The flowers, perched on the edge of a table from which they might fall, could have also been placed with a sketch by Toulouse Lautrec, Panneau pour la baroque de la Goulue, 1895. The swathes of empty space surrounding figures in motion, watching, performing, sometimes barely outlined, demonstrating Lautrec’s understanding of the richness of a line on a canvas could illuminate Fantin-Latour’s precision in the depiction of space. Indeed, the two artists play between flatness and volume as though the one might have influenced the other. Which is to say, the connections and conversations of the installation run much deeper than those obvious ones given us by Schnabel’s placement of paintings on the wall.
Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Panneau pour la baroque de la Goulue, 1895
It was unclear to me if Schnabel had chosen to bring the pain and suffering of men, and their consequent tragedy, into the foreground because this is the emotional narrative that best gets to the most profound levels of being human. Put differently, does Schnabel focus on the tragedy of male life for its ability to access something profound about the history of art? Or is he simply drawn to the tragedy of absence, despair and death that he believes weighs on his gender?
Julian Schnabel, Artaud (Starting to Sing Part 3), 1981
Whatever the answer to this question, the power of this small exhibition can be found on a number of levels. Schnabel gives new life to otherwise familiar artworks, inviting us to see their different aspects, in different positions on the walls. And we find new threads between Manet and Velasquez and Goya, all of which are the preface to everything that appears on the modern painting. Ultimately, I came away not only questioning the linearity given to the history of painting by a museum such as the Orsay, but through the odd juxtapositions Schnabel effects, seeing it reinforced.

No comments: