Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Musée d'Orsay Comes to Seoul

10 July 2014

I'm not sure how I found out about this exhibit, but once I knew, well, I had to go.  The Musée d'Orsay, the Parisian train-station-turned-museum, houses most of the French Impressionist paintings still in France.  It's a beautiful building, and the paintings inside make it a phenomenal museum.

Somehow, 170 or so of those pieces of art were sent to Seoul for a special exhibit at the Museum of Korea.  Which makes some sense, because this museum is attached to the train station by those flat escalator people-mover things.

The walls of the long hallway are perforated and backlit, creating swirling patterns on one side and silhouettes of museum artifacts on the opposite wall.  Yes, a Buddha and Bodhisattva made of little holes in the panel and lit from the back!

Well after that entrance, I knew the museum would be something special.  And it was.

Museums and palaces and other civic buildings in South Korea seem to be built on a grand scale, making these edifices major monuments.  Beginning with the Joseon Dynasty in the 1300s, this tradition continues to this day.

So instead of having a building amid the city, each museum here has grounds.  A water feature.  A pagoda overlooking the water.  Koi.  Waterlilies or lotus blossoms.  Each museum is surrounded by a park, where people can enjoy the outdoors, the sun, the water, without feeling as if they're in the middle of a city of 10.14 million people.  We've been to a few museums, and this seems to be de rigeur.

And special exhibits seem to include oversize versions of certain pieces of art, for photo opportunities.  People were posing in the middle of Rousseau's "The Snake Charmer," or in front of Monet's "Woman With A Parasol."  (I loved the kids playing with the 3-D snakes, the boys hanging onto the fangs as if fighting a twelve-foot-long cobra!)


So, the exhibit.  The title was "Beyond Impressionism," and this small but ambitious show tried to trace the development of art in France from just before the Impressionists through the major players of the Impressionist movement, on to the Neo-Impressionists (van Gogh, Gaugin, Cezanne, and the Pointellists such as Seurat and Signac), and onward through the Post-Impressionists (Toulouse-Lautrec) and then to "La Belle Epoch," the early 20th century.  Ambitious!  

Okay, so when a major museum like the d'Orsay sends out priceless works of art, they don't send out exactly the A list.  They send lesser known pieces of art by the masters.  Not that these are any less wonderful paintings - more that they are less well known, for whatever reason.  

So you probably know different versions of Monet's paintings of girls in a boat.  Or "Woman With a Parasol."  Or "London Parliament Seen Through Fog."  Yes, they exist.  There are several versions of some of them, because the artists were interested in how light and season affected the subjects.  And certain paintings are better known.  So no, they didn't get the trip to Seoul.  But that's what makes shows like this so interesting - these are the pieces of art that often aren't seen!  The better known paintings hang in the galleries, and these are almost like backup players who hide in the wings.  Or understudies, waiting for their chance to go on.  When they are at the d'Orsay, they are in storage, often changing places with other works that might be taken down for restoration, or loaned out.  But these are the oftentimes hidden gems, and the only way to see these works of art is to attend exhibits of loaned works in sometimes obscure locations.

And then there are wonderful little gems that are NEVER seen - have you ever heard of Renoir's "Field of Banana Trees"????  No, I never have either.  Lovely piece full of depth and whimsy and redolent of the tropics.  Why don't we ever see this?

These are just a few of the paintings that were there, some of my favourites that were in this exhibit.  Van Gogh's "Portrait of Eugen Boch" with the sky a preamble to his later "Starry Night" series.  A lovely "White Cat" by Bonnard - anyone who has ever owned a cat knows exactly how this person feels, trying to eat her dinner with the cat trying to eat it for her.

There were also photos and films of the building of the d'Orsay train station, and later the Eiffel Tower, both emblems of art and architecture in France during the time of the Impressionists and beyond, both symbolic of the wealth of the nation.

It was a delightful show, and I'm so glad I went.

I also took a quick walk through the main part of the museum, which houses artifacts from pre-historic through modern South Korea and other areas of Asia.  There were huge stone sculptures and a four-storey-high pagoda, room after room of ceramic pieces (the creation of celadon glaze being a major pivotal point in the history of ceramics), and of course glass, jade, and beautiful metal work.  Again, the museum is large, but houses a collection that spans centuries and millenia, as well as covers a huge geographic area, so the exhibits provide an overview of the history and culture of much of Asia.

Oh, the main part of the museum is free of charge.  How many national history museums are like that?

Last bit of info - on the third floor of the museum, there is a Korean tea house for refreshments.  But, unknown to me before I got there, on the ground floor, beyond the museum gift shop and bookstore, there is an entire food court serving Korean and Japanese food.  If I ever went to this museum again, I'd make sure the have lunch there.  I relaxed with a cup of iced tea, and all the food looked and smelled wonderful.  So make this a mid-day even, lunch and then the museum.

Here's their website for more information (such as how to get there):

and an overview of the exhibit I attended:

(I always forget to say this - the photos of the artwork are all from the internet.  Don't take photos of artwork in museums, it's bad for the art and you violate twenty million copyright laws or something!)

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