An interview with Guy Cogeval, president of the Musée d’Orsay

local/cache-vignettes/L270xH289/Photo_Cogeval-31536.jpgA little over a year and a half after his appointment at the head of the Musée d’Orsay, Guy Cogeval organized a press conference a few days ago to present the project for reorganizing the collections. He granted us an interview at this time answering all of our questions, notably those concerning paying exhibitions on tour which will finance a large part of the refurbishment.

A year ago, you presented your plans for the future. These included reinstallations which will modify the aspect of the museum rather profoundly when compared to Gae Aulenti’s original concept. For a long time, there was a fear that nothing could be changed without her approval. Yet it seems that she accepted your project ?

Things change little by little. The museum left to us by Gae Aulenti is really magnificent, notably the splendid sculpture gallery which I hope will never be changed by any of my successors. It is entirely possible to work within this architecture. When I arrived as head of the museum, a year and a half ago, one of my first decisions was to talk to her in order to discuss the changes I wanted to make. She had given us her permission. Last week, she came back and confirmed her approval. She was even literally delighted by the Chauchard and Moreau-Nélaton galleries as redone by us, finding their architecture even more beautiful with the green shade chosen by Hubert Le Gall. It is very important for us to have the architect’s approval, since the project is totally opposed to her original design. The picture railings and the distance between these have been changed, so the rapport with the art work is radically different… Gae Aulenti even noticed that we had installed Solux lamps in the galleries and was amazed by the quality of the lighting.

Solux lamps ?

These were created two or three years ago. I saw them at the Museum in Cologne and I barely recognized it with the new lighting : the collection was really enhanced by these bulbs which have an exceptional quality of light. They have imbued the Dejeuner sur l’herbe with a certain truth.

Do they reproduce in a way natural daylight ?

Yes, it does look a lot like natural daylight. This is not really more expensive than other lighting techniques. The Essen museum, which will reopen next year in a new building, has also picked these lamps. A certain number of museums now support this system, although I don’t know what we’ll do after 2016 as the sale of halogen lamps will be forbidden.

Even for museums ?

That means everyone. This is an extreme measure taken by the European Commission in Brussels. It should be reviewed case per case since museums cannot live without light.

Will the museum remain open during the refurbishment ?

We could have done the same thing as the Musée Picasso and close for two years but I refused to do so. As a matter of fact, some of the guards of that museum are now working temporarily at Orsay. During the partial closure, all of our guards will stay here with us. They will use that time to take training courses paid for by the museum. During the works, we will live on two floors. The middle level, the first floor and all of the side galleries will remain open. The temporary changes can be explained very simply : the most beautiful Impressionist works in our collections which are normally located up high, will be presented during a fourteen-month period in the Lille gallery on the ground floor. It will revert back to a Second Empire gallery after the refurbishment.

What changes have been made to the plans you presented a year ago ?

There hasn’t been any change. There has been above all Gae Aulenti’s approval ; she has even agreed to modify the columns room on the last floor as it raises security problems for the paintings. These small columns were not very practical as visitors couldn’t see the works, for example Rousseau’s Snake Charmer, without running into them. Contrary to general opinion, they were not at all there originally and are not structurally bearing ; they were put in by Gae Aulenti as a décor, and she has accepted to have them removed. This space will be transformed into exhibition rooms for “art et essai”, more limited ones, as was for instance Masques. A planned exhibition will be devoted to Courbet’s Fighters, one of his three most beautiful paintings which represents two fighters close up, and which was not shown during the recent retrospective organized by Laurence des Cars. This painting will be allowed to come because the Hungarian export ban has been lifted. We’ve made a lot of loans to the museum in Budapest for the Gustave Moreau exhibition and for a remarkable exhibition on Cezanne which will open next year. In exchange, they are lending us The Fighters thus allowing us to present an excellent special study exhibition on this theme with Thomas Eakins, Paul Gauguin, Paul Sérusier, the fights in Britanny, Hokusaï, etc.

Will this be when the museum reopens ?

No, before that we will inaugurate these rooms in October 2010, with an exhibition devoted to the best pictorial photographer of the Viennese Secession movement, Heinrich Kühn. That will offer something to the public before the end of the work scheduled for March 2011. This will be the first space to reopen.

March 2011 ? The refurbishment won’t take very long.

I’m glad to hear you say that. The work on the pavilion at the back where the architecture rooms were, was voted a year before I arrived. They are being funded by government loans. The plan was to create five floors in those places where they did not exist already. The program was not very specific although we knew it would house decorative arts. It has become more detailed since my arrival. The project was handed over to L’Atelier de l’Ile with whom we have a good working relationship. However, we realized that we were going to be over budget. Above all, we noticed that moving around the Impressionist gallery would be almost impossible during the refurbishment. We would have needed to let visitors in through the Café des hauteurs, then into the Impressionist gallery and back through the same gallery to leave. We couldn’t set up this going back and forth in the same rooms, thus endangering the paintings. So, step by step, we finally admitted that it was more logical to undertake what we wanted to do right now instead of within four or five years. That’s why the refurbishment has become so big.

Who won out for the reinstallation project ?

It was Wilmotte with a proposal for such a remarkable project that it was chosen unanimously. He took the challenge with the Gae Aulenti design, whom he very much admires by the way, very seriously. He is one of those architects who becomes more and more demanding. I did not find his work twenty-five years ago very interesting, whereas today I believe his projects are remarkable.

Let’s talk about the exhibitions organized from now until the reopening…

In October, there will be a James Ensor retrospective and the exhibition Art nouveau revival highlighting the way the 1960’s considered Art Nouveau. This is an exhibition which Philippe Thiébaut, director of conservation, has been planning for 15 years. I wanted to include it in the program as I greatly admire his work. I would like to show in the museum how the 20th century integrated 19th century art, which we’ve already started doing with Max Ernst’s collages. During these two exhibitions, we will begin to move the collections to prepare for the refurbishment. The Post-Impressionist works will be removed and we will close the columns room to test colour samples before really starting to redo it. And then towards end of November, we will close the Impressionist galleries. So there’ll be a gap of ten days during which none of the Impressionist works in the museum will be available to the public. A discounted entrance ticket will be available during this brief period. Then, we will reopen the Lille gallery with Impressionism and Post-Impressionism around mid-December. The Lille gallery is now closed as we are installing projector ramps allowing us to present these works.

Are the pieces formerly in the Lille gallery now in storage ?

1. François-Désiré Froment-Meurice (1802-1855)
with the collaboration
of many artists
Toilet of the duchess of Parma, c. 1847
Partly gilded silver,
gilded copper, enamel painted on copper,
blue glass, emaralds
and garnets -
210 x 188 cm
Paris, Musée d’Orsay
Photo : D. Rykner

They are either in storage or have been redistributed in other rooms. The very beautiful Nude by Jean-Jacques Henner, which was difficult to see well in the Lille gallery, is now very well displayed. We always think that some works have found permanent locations, but every once in a while there’s an unexpected surprise. During relocations, some works are more enhanced and thus find a new and permanent home. This is the case for example for the Toilet of the Duchess of Parma which was placed in the new decorative rooms near the Philippe Meyer collection. This new presentation is much more magnificent. Between the month of December 2009 and March 2011, most of our Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collection will therefore be presented temporarily in the Lille gallery. During this time, we will send about 220 works to two exhibitions thus helping to fund the refurbishment. In comparison, this year we have lent about 2000 works.

Doesn’t selling an exhibition raise problems ?

All museums do this. Our trustees find it remarkable that we’ve managed to carry out this refurbishment without creating a deficit.

Yes, but once the project is over will this type of system continue ?

No, this is an exceptional situation. It’s better to send the works out than to have them sit in storage. I can tell you this is a historical event for Canberra and San Francisco. They are perfectly aware that this will not happen again. I spent a lot of time discussing this and was very clear that after 2011, we couldn’t send out this many masterpieces to exhibitions outside of our museum. The partial closing this year provides us with this possibility. It wasn’t easy, given today’s economic crisis, to obtain two million euros for each of the exhibition stops. So we will not carry out any more such operations on this level. However, each year, we will have to organize at least one traveling exhibition, bringing in somewhere between one and two million euros.

But not necessarily with masterpieces ?

In some cases, yes, but in a much more limited way. Everyone does it. The Louvre does it, the MOMA also…

And what about Shanghai ? For the Universal Exhibition, I think you’re supposed to send some masterpieces with no context and for no true reason.

It’s still too early to talk about as the details have not been ironed out. I think that it’s good for Orsay to be the star attraction at the Shanghai pavilion in a location where all the necessary safety measures for the works have been guaranteed. We are not being payed for our presence. This is a Universal Exhibition ; we shouldn’t forget that the building we’re in came about thanks to a Universal Exhibition and that we hold many works produced for Universal Exhibitions in the 19th century.

Let’s go back to the exhibitions at the museum…

The highlight of early next year is the exhibition in March, Crime et châtiment (Crime and Punishment) with Jean Clair and Robert Badinter. The vision of criminals as seen through the art of the 19th century, from Géricault to Munch.

Is Robert Badinter familiar with art history ?

He’s very knowledgeable on the question. He himself is a collector. It’s absolutely marvelous to have these two men. This is not your run of the mill exhibition. They make a good team, Robert Badinter as the person who planned the idea for years and Jean Clair as general curator.

And the retrospective on Jean-Léon Gérôme ?

Well, you have to understand something. Due to the refurbishment, we cannot offer as many exhibitions as usual. Gérôme will come after Crime et Châtiment. However, we will be able to present a small exhibition in two rooms on Meyer de Haan at the same time as the one on Gérôme. It will be in collaboration with the Museum of History of Judaism in Amsterdam where it will start out. A third stop will take place at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Quimper. This is a fine project for those who love the Pont-Aven school. There has never been an exhibition on Meyer de Haan. At the museum in Amsterdam, they will focus on the artist’s inspiration in Jewish painting when he did very dark Rembrandts with images of synagogues and the Jewish community in Amsterdam, before he left for Pont-Aven where he was strongly influenced by Gauguin’s light. At Orsay, we will present fewer works from his early period. Gérôme, which we’re doing with the Getty but we’re the ones organizing, will be held after the end of summer next year. The third stop will be the Thyssen Foundation in Madrid.

Who is the curator ?

The curators will be Mary Morton for the Getty and Laurence des Cars, Dominique de Font-Réaux and Edouard Papet for us. The exhibition will really be a defense and illustration of a painter who is worth so much more than the label of “academic” he bears and who, in a way, invented cinema. Almost all of the important loans were granted. Next year there will also be an important program, the major retrospective on Monet at the Grand Palais, in the autumn of 2010. All of Monet, almost two hundred works will come from all over the world. I will be the general curator for the exhibition which is something I really wanted to do. There will be no other stops. People will have to come to Paris to see it.

Does the director of a museum like Orsay still have time to do art history ?

It is very difficult but I hope to do so next year.

But the exhibition De la Scène au Tableau (From the Stage to the Painting) which just opened at the Musée Cantini in Marseille, is also done by you ?

Yes, with Marie-Paule Viale, but this project dates back to when I was a professor at the Ecole du Louvre. I didn’t know at the time that it would end up as an exhibition. For years, when I was in Montreal, my former students at the Ecole du Louvre would ask me why I couldn’t turn it into an exhibition. I didn’t organize it in Montreal for several reasons but the day I left, I started working on the project.

The subject is close to that of an exhibition you did in Lyon a few years ago, Triomphe et Mort du Héros (Triumph and Death of the Hero) ?

It’s the follow-up, the second act, twenty years later.

But it’s not strictly chronological.

That’s right. Triomphe et Mort du Héros made me want to do a class on the theatrical in painting. Then the class motivated me to do Les Enfants du Paradis (Heaven’s Childs), the first title we had thought of for the exhibition in Marseille. We had to change the name because of Prévert’s heirs.

And what about more long-term plans ?

We cannot really discuss it in detail but there will be a Manet retrospective, organized by Stéphane Guégan, with the support also of Françoise Cachin. This will be the reopening exhibition. And the other exhibition, in the “art et essai” rooms will be on Pre-Raphaelite photography. There will also be a Gallen-Kalela retrospective in 2012.

Were there any exhibitions which were cancelled or delayed ?

Vers le cinéma (Towards Cinema) was delayed until 2013 and, above all, I abandoned Louis II of Bavaria. I have probably become less original as time goes by because I have to take into account the museum’s interest. I would like to avoid a deficit. I’m accountable for the museum’s finances and as, soon-to-be, president, on January 1st, of two establishments, along with the Orangerie, I must consider seriously maintaining solid finances. Therefore, I have to organize at least one “blockbuster” exhibition per year, keeping in mind that this does not necessarily mean it should be a bad one.

And Louis II of Bavaria is not a “blockbuster” ?

No, not at all. This corresponds to a very high budget with a lot of unknowns. It required a considerable investment. His bed had to be moved… this is all very interesting inside the château itself. Everything is fake, artificial, painted on… Is it really necessary to recreate such a décor when we have a real Versailles two steps away ? The staging would have to be very elaborate. I’m not as taken by a project like that. I’m also hesitant about organizing a big exhibition on Verdi. We’re going to replan it for 2013, the bicentennial of his birth, but in a reduced version.

During the press conference last year you said that you wanted to start an association of museum directors with important 19th century collections.

I’ve done it and it’s working well. There is a “club” with regional museums which meets every six months, once at Orsay and another time in a provincial museum hosting a special event. There’s another club, with international museums, which met once and was a bit less successful. These meetings give us the chance to discuss projects in common. The next meeting of the French club will be at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nantes which is organizing the exhibition Fascinante Italie (Fascinating Italy), devoted to Italian influence on Impressionism and Post-Impressionism in France. Despite the reservations expressed by my curators, I lent The Italian Woman by Van Gogh because I believe that the masterpieces at the Musée d’Orsay should go to the provinces. This is one of the guidelines in my policy.

What about the Musée des Impressionistes in Giverny ?

Next March, we will again lend many works for the exhibition, L’Impressionnisme au fil de la Seine (Impressionism along the Seine). Giverny has been hugely successful and I am especially pleased as it didn’t cost the museum a thing, except for loans and advice.

Any news of the Musée Hébert which has been closed for several years ?

I’d almost forgotten to tell you about it : we’ve opened a small Hébert room in the museum. We’ve changed the hang in the rooms on either side of the sculpture gallery. On the right, for example, the first now holds Ingres and Delacroix, the second Jean Léon Gérôme and the third one is devoted to historical painting and to portraits.

But what will happen to the Musée Hébert itself ?

For the moment, nothing at all as I don’t know where to find the 10 to 12 million euros needed for the repairs required there. I’m rather pessimistic about the matter.

2. Maurice Denis (1870-1943)
Screen with doves
Oil on canvas - 165 x 54 cm
Paris, Musée d’Orsay
Photo : Musée d’Orsay / ADAGP

Can you tell us something about recent acquisitions, which we try to follow closely on this website ?

This has been an exceptional year for acquisitions. We have 2 million euros a year, which may seem like a modest sum, but lots more than I ever had before. There were of course the two purchases at the Bergé-Yves Saint-Lauren auction, Ensor and Vuillard [1], and the magnificent donation of the Burne-Jones tapestry [2]. We bought the Screen with Doves by Maurice Denis (ill. 2) and an extraordinary Cezanne, Peasant Sitting, joined the collections thanks to an “acceptance in lieu” [3]. We also acquired a superb Gallé vase. These are only a few examples. Other acquisitions are currently in progress but it’s too early to talk about them.

Version française

Didier Rykner, mercredi 14 octobre 2009

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