Our Impressions of the New Installations at the Musée d’Orsay


1. Musée d’Orsay
European Decorative Arts
Photo : Didier Rykner

The Musée d’Orsay, now renovated and enlarged, opened its new galleries two months ago. Since then, many readers have been surprised at not seeing an article on this site about an event which has received extensive coverage elsewhere.
We must confess that we have been hesitating as how to approach the subject for our opinion is a very favorable one. But in commenting the refurbishment with many around us, we found that this impression is not always shared by others, even among the editors at The Art Tribune. We have always stood firmly behind what we write but, at least for part of the new Musée d’Orsay, we are not sure we are right.

We are therefore going to explain why we are generally in favor of these new rooms, but will also comment - here we break with our usual practice - on why others do not appreciate them, with convincing arguments.

2. Musée d’Orsay
European Decorative Arts
Photo : Didier Rykner

Let us begin then with what meets with almost unanimous approval, the space added at the north-east corner of the building in what is called the Pavillon Amont. Cleverly organized where the escalator formerly took visitors up to the Impressionists (and represented little architectural interest), this part of the museum now welcomes European Decorative Arts, until now barely exhibited, also allowing by the same token the discovery of many recent acquisitions (which we will discuss at another moment).
The setting, both understated and perfectly effective, is the work of L’Atelier de L’Ile. The layout of the collections is clear, visitors move about easily and the objects are of remarkable quality. The second floor houses decorative works by the Nabis, including Maurice Denis’ decors for the chapel in Vésinet (ill. 3), which had not been shown to the public before this ; the third and fourth levels present foreign schools. This is without question the most successful and accomplished section of the new museum.


3. Maurice Denis
Decors for the Chapel in Vésinet
Musée d’Orsay
Photo : Didier Rykner


At the beginning of the visit on the ground floor, (or the end if one starts at the top), there is a Courbet room housing all of the artist’s large formats including, temporarily, The Mort for the Deer from Besançon, on deposit at the Musée d’Orsay. While on the subject, we point out that Orsay attempted to recover several paintings which had been on deposit in the provinces for a very long time. Although this can be justified when it does not concern museums (for example, the Jean-François Raffaelli from City Hall at Quesnoy), this is no longer the case when the canvases, although listed in the Parisian museum’s inventory, are an essential part of the establishments where they are being held. Some of the museums found the approach rather abrupt, especially since there are still important works in storage at Orsay. Fortunately, in most cases, both parties were able to reach an agreement whereby the works will return to their adoptive homes in two years’ time.
Not far from here, a bit off the itinerary, visitors will enjoy the rooms featuring Decorative Arts of the Second Empire (ill. 4), a success in our opinion even though it would have been even better to place the objects around the room instead of limiting their presentation to the walls, as well as several display cabinets for drawings highlighting temporary hangs (ill. 5).


4. Room of Decorative Arts of the Second Empire
Musée d’Orsay
Photo : Didier Rykner

5. Cabinet of Architecture Drawings
Musée d’Orsay
Photo : Didier Rykner


Returning to the fifth floor, visitors arrive in a large empty gallery which would have certainly gained from presenting at least a few works. The Impressionist rooms begin right afterwards (ill. 6 to 8), a setting produced by Jean-Marie Wilmotte. These are some of the most criticized among the new layout.

6. The Impressionist Gallery
Musée d’Orsay
Photo : Didier Rykner

The first drawback concerns the color of the walls, anthracite gray. We do not find it unpleasant, since the paintings stand out favorably against what might be considered at first glance a strange shade for Impressionists, but in any case, this is a definite plus as compared to the previous white. Still, we admit that this may shock some, perhaps even rightly so and in fact, not many people find it to be a good choice. In any case, quite a few regret the uniform use of this color throughout the entire floor without offering the slightest variation. On this point, we feel they are right as one soon has the impression of being overwhelmed, preventing visitors from better focusing on the paintings.
The second criticism comes from the lighting. Some of it is natural, but many regret there the lack of more and that part of this outdoor light has been concealed by the new installations. This does not seem at all obvious to us since the skylight is exactly the same size as before. In fact, we have pointed out the quality of the new bulbs used by the museum which illuminate the space in an almost natural light. Perhaps the dark backgrounds give an impression of darkness, something we personally did not experience at this particular spot.


7. The Impressionist Gallery
Musée d’Orsay
Photo : Didier Rykner

8. The Impressionist Gallery
Musée d’Orsay
Photo : Didier Rykner


We will not dwell on the cafe des Hauteurs, now the café Campana, the name of the two brothers responsible for the innovative design. The 70’s style struck us as rather amusing, probably because it brings back childhood memories... But we must say that almost everyone else hates it... Once more, we are glad of having chosen not to criticize contemporary art.
Finally, we leave the imposing anthracite gray walls and enter the rooms on the extreme north-west end of the museum, known as the "adjacent cabinet rooms", where the windows are either nonexistent or else have been covered up, to welcome the pastels. The walls here are mauve, then green in the large room presenting "Realism" (ill. 9).


9. The Realist Gallery
Musée d’Orsay
Photo : Didier Rykner


Nearing the end of the visit, museum goers come back down on the side of the rue de Lille and arrive at the middle level where the new rooms opened shortly before the general inauguration. There we find the "Françoise Cachin Gallery" in tribute to the first director of the Musée d’Orsay, who recently passed away (see news item of 5/2/11), featuring the post-Impressionism of Seurat and Signac, as well as Gauguin and Van Gogh (ill. 10), then the Symbolist Gallery which goes from Puvis de Chavanne to Vuillard (ill. 11). Designed here by Virginia Fienga and the team at the Musée d’Orsay, this museum setting also opts for very dark colors on the walls which, in combination with the lighting which focuses solely on the works, results in a particularly unpleasant and somber atmosphere. We were told this problem had been noticed and would be corrected.
On the same floor, on the terraces (ill. 12), the sculptures have also benefited from the new layout, a particularly satisfactory choice as the area receives the light coming from the central nave.


10. Françoise Cachin Gallery (Postimpressionism)
Musée d’Orsay
Photo : Didier Rykner

11. The Symbolist Gallery
Musée d’Orsay
Photo : Didier Rykner


12. Terrace on mid-level, rue de Lille side
Musée d’Orsay
Photo : Didier Rykner

In general throughout all these new rooms, the hang is successfully done, not too close together but not in a minimalist manner either, allowing for an extensive number of works to be presented. We were able to understand the logic of the disposition, but it appears to leave other persons lost because - and this is exact - many currents (notably Symbolism and Naturalism) find themselves hanging in various other sections of the museum, depending on size, thus preventing a coherent grasp of the whole. Visitors are likely to feel helpless since they may not always have the necessary background for establishing this artistic itinerary.

To conclude our remarks, and in what is a difficult attempt to offer an overall picture, it seems that the Decorative Arts (and sculpture [1]) come out far ahead of the others in this new arrangement at Orsay, while as concerns painting, opinions are still split on its success. However, one thing is sure here : it is highly regrettable that several large "academic" formats now hang without their frames (ill. 13), an absurd contradiction, particularly since Guy Cogeval, in the press release, praises, in a very exact but all the more paradoxical way, the "gilt frames, notably the frames corresponding to Salon painting."


13. Tony Robert-Fleury (1837-1911)
The Last Day of Corinth, before 1870
Oil on Canvas - 401 x 602 cm
Paris, Musée d’Orsay
Exhibited without a frame
Photo : Didier Rykner


Before closing this article, we would like to commend the museum warmly for carrying out this major renovation without closing down entirely and for meeting the planned deadline, a rare exploit.

Version française


Didier Rykner, mardi 3 janvier 2012


Notes

[1] For the latter, it is really unfortunate - we would go so far as to say abnormal - that the Salle des Fêtes (or Ballroom) has seen the number of sculptures exhibited there progressively diminish so as to better rent it out to companies for events... While this is a legitimate use when the space is appropriate, we should not forget that the vocation of a museum is to exhibit works not replace them with V.I.P. receptions.



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