Friday, 17 April 2015

Musee Marmottan Monet in Paris

It's always fascinating to visit a new museum or gallery and a highlight of my recent trip to Paris was going to the Musee Marmottan Monet in the inner suburbs of Paris. It is located in the mansion house of M. Marmottan and it houses a truly eclectic range of arts on display as well as being the repository for the biggest collection of Monet paintings in the world, mainly donated my Monet's son, Michel.

The collection begins on the first floor of the house with rooms laid out in their Empire glory with some lovely furniture illustrating the uses of the rooms. All light and airy, the place feels comfortable and welcoming, being able to wander round at leisure without having to avoid crowds. The walls are hung with a wide range of paintings, from Empire and the Restoration to a lovely painting of a vase of flowers by Gaugin and a painting by Marc Chagall, 'Fiancee With A Blue Face'. There's also a room full of small head and shoulders portraits - maybe a couple of dozen - of random early 18th Century people by Boilly. Very ragged fringes over the forehead seem to have been all the vogue at the time.

Wandering round the rooms I stumbled across a large room full of paintings from illuminated manuscripts and a few larger gothic paintings. I've always loved illuminated manuscripts, their delicate power and simple beliefs, with scenes from the life of Christ and some from 'books of days' showing the seasons and other more mundane scenes.

The museum houses the Wildenstein Collection of illuminations from the middle ages to the early Renaissance and they're all gloriously colourful and fascinating. Illuminated manuscripts have been secret passion of mine since I first discovered them as a teenager. You can rarely get close enough to them in displays to really see the detailed miniature paintings but the Wildenstein Collection is laid out so you can get really close and enjoy the colour and design. Many are miniature versions of full sized paintings - and what skill that must have taken - whereas others were clearly lifted from manuscripts. But what a joy to find the exhibition!

Another, much smaller exhibition, was a couple of rooms full of paintings and drawings by Berthe Morisot, usually referred to as the first woman Impressionist. There's a series of paintings of one of her nieces, showing her as she grew into a young lady but my favourite was 'Les Cerises' showing two girls picking cherries. I can't find a good reproduction online - they all look a bit too anodyne and chocolate-boxy, but the real thing looks vibrant and almost like it's just been hung up to dry as Berthe finishes it. The multiplicity of greens in the painting, the sun-drenched orchard and the girl balancing on the step ladder to get to the cherries makes for a very intimate  depiction of a scene that must be reproduced countless times in late summer the world over.

Another painting of her's I really liked was of a shepherdess lolling on the ground next to one of her sheep, a lovely, lazy scene when you just know she should probably be doing something else. It's a very simple and very effective composition with warm colours and the sun beating down.

Another surprise was the current exhibition which I expected to be relatively small since all the other rooms were ordinary sized, but the exhibition space is surprisingly large and well designed. The exhibition is 'The Toilet: The Birth of Intimacy' and is exactly what the title says it is, ie, paintings of women in the bath! Or what counted as a bath over the centuries. What an intriguing idea for an exhibition!

We're shown some very early paintings of women bathing up until the 20th Century with the captions explaining progress through the years from the decline of public bathing in the early Renaissance to making it a more private experience, but one in which other people (and strangers) could still participate at times. The captions explained the move away from bathing using water in the plague years to avoid the threat of contagion to gradually discovering it again as water came to become more easily available in people's houses. It was a rather fascinating history lesson and a novel idea for an exhibition.

I suppose that in a city where every artist has had his or her own solo show over the years you've got to be a bit more creative in coming up with ideas to show paintings so that we can get some new insights. Brigading these paintings together is an inspired way to bring new life to them.

The paintings run through the centuries from artists barely heard of to works by Degas, Toulouse Lautrec, Berthe Morisot, Picasso and others. One of my favourites was this one, 'La Rouge a Levres' by Frantisek Kupka of a woman applying lipstick. Such a simple image but, in the context of this exhibition, very powerful. One of the more graphic paintings was of a woman holding up her voluminous skirts to urinate into a bowl she holds in front of her - so that's how it was done! It's an interesting exhibition - not really about naked women (which is freely available everywhere) but about women in intimate and private moments. A bit voyeuristic but also something to learn from.

All of this and I haven't even mentioned Monsieur Monet yet. He has his own custom-built exhibition space downstairs and it is fab. Very light and airy, well lit and nicely spaced out to provide lots of space to view these great paintings. The current exhibition is a mix of his early works with his later painting of his gardens at Giverny and the inevitable waterlillies.  Given the wealth of Monet paintings the museum has in its collection then I assume the exhibition space is re-hung every now and then but the paintings currently on show are top notch.

It was a delight to see 'Impression, Sunrise', the painting that gave the name to the Impressionists, with Monet's vision of an orange sunrise. It's astonishing to think that this one painting changed the way we see - not immediately, since it took decades for Impressionism to become accepted - so what must Monet have seen and thought as he gazed out that morning? It's that vision that makes him an artist, an originator and not a copyist. And he kept on originating for the rest of his life.

One of my favourites, and a painting I'd never seen before, was 'Vallee de Sasso, Effet de Soleil' with the mad foliage swaying in the breeze and the sun creating a new colourful Eden. One hillside forested with dozens of greens and the valley floor and other hillside flooded by the sun bringing out a mass of colours in the leaves and trees, the foliage and flowers surrounding the artist's house. This is a poor reproduction and doesn't properly illustrate the wild colours that make you want to step into the painting and pick some of those branches and flowers to bring back into this drab world.

The Monet room closes with a series of paintings of his waterlillies, as it must. I've been spoilt of course, since I've seen his eight giant canvases at the Orangery gallery in the Tuileries and it's difficult to compare anything less than the heroic to those great paintings. But it's always good to see more!

What an astonishing museum Marmottan Monet is, with so much comfortably packed into a relatively small space. There was a steady flow of visitors but it wasn't crowded, which made it a joy to wander round and see everything properly and leisurely. Another great plus was that it had a good shop as well - loads of postcards, loads of books (in English as well as French) and loads of merch of all sorts. It also did very brisk business that shows the wisdom of it's ways - pay attention bigger museums: people will buy stuff if you've got good stuff and Marmottan-Monet certainly has the right stuff! Now all it needs is a little cafe with nice cakes...

I will definitely go back on future visits to Paris - such a great discovery!  

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