Reopening of the Musée Granet in Aix-en-Provence

1. Robert Campin known as Master
of Flemalle
(active between1406
and 1444)
The Virgin in Glory between Saint Peter
and Saint Augustin, Venerated by a Patron
, vers 1440
Oil on panel - 47 x 31 cm
Aix-en-Provence, Musée Granet
Photo : D. Rykner

The latest trend in inaugurations is doing it twice. The former French Minister of Culture, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, did not hesitate in officially celebrating the opening of empty museums, weeks or even months before the public could gain admission for the simple act of seeing his name in gold letters at the entrance to a building (particularly at the Galerie des Gobelins and the Centre des Monuments Nationaux). The Musée Granet was thus also entitled to two inaugurations. The first took place in 2006 during the Cézanne exhibition but it had remained practically closed since then. In many instances, people were unhappy to learn that they had gone to Aix-en-Provence for nothing.

Last June, the opening was finally official, enabling visitors to discover the new layout of the collections. Let us begin by saying that it is highly disappointing. Nonetheless, the wish to display the largest number of works possible is commendable. These often hang close together and allow the Musée Granet’s wealth to be richly displayed, something of a consolation for an otherwise senseless organizing scheme. We will not dwell on the colors of the walls, too often white, at times red, but not quite the right Pompeian shade characteristic of the XIXth C.. Nor will we dwell on the faulty lighting which, we hope, will soon be improved. The real problem lies in the disastrous arrangement of the paintings on the walls.

2. Aix-en-Provence, Musée Granet
View of the XVIIth C. Northern School gallery
Photo : D. Rykner

3. Ascribed to Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Rearing Horse
Gilded terracotta
barely visible inside the round glass case
Photo : D. Rykner

Robert Campin (ill. 1) welcomes museum goers in the first gallery devoted to Primitive artists. In this as in the following room (ill. 2) where one can admire Northern European art of the XVIIth C., apart from the fact that the walls are a bit too white, the presentation is well done. This effect is clearly ruined when one arrives at the third gallery. Small pictures (for example, the Martyrdom of Saint Martina by Pierre de Cortone) are placed up high, above much larger paintings that hang below. Elsewhere, the reflection of the glass of the round display cabinet spoils the view of the terracotta figures inside, acting as a distorting mirror similar to those found in amusement parks (ill. 3). Exceptionally, still in the same room, two still-lives hang at viewing height. Sadly, they are particularly mediocre. In another spot, a sculpture placed directly in front of a painting (ill. 4) blocks its view, an example repeated further on.

4. Sculpture displayed in front of a painting
Photo : D. Rykner

5. Naples, XVIIth C.
Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian
Oil on canvas
Aix-en-Provence, Musée Granet
Photo : D. Rykner

The Musée Granet owns a considerable number of Italian XVIIth C. paintings, which despite their high quality, remain anonymous. Several are displayed in the following gallery, such as Saint Sebastian (ill. 5) and a Religious Saint in Ecstasy. A beautiful Annunciation by Daniele Crespi (ill.6) can also be admired here. Allof these works come from the Bourguignon de Fabregoules collection, one of the museum’s most important donors in the XIXthC

6. Daniele Crespi (1598-1630)
The Annunciation
Oil on panel - 48 x 68 cm
Musée Granet
Photo : D. Rykner

Leaving this gallery, a staircase leads visitors to the upper floor and French artists of the XVIIth C. Here again, the presentation is disappointing. The paintings by Lubin Baugin or Pierre Puget are much too low (ill. 7) spoiling their enjoyment and posing serious problems for their conservation, since any museum goer could inadvertently damage them. Once more, small works are placed so high up that they are barely visible. (ill. 8)

7. Aix-en-Provence, Musée Granet
XVIIth C. French paintings gallery
Works by Pierre
Puget, hanging too low
Photo : D. Rykner

7. Aix-en-Provence, Musée Granet
XVIIth C. French paintings
Upper right-hand corner, Saint Cecilia by Jacques Stella
Photo : D. Rykner

8. Aix-en-Provence, Musée Granet
Salle Granet
Isolated, in the middle, Portrait de Granet by Ingres
Photo : D. Rykner

The XIXth C. galleries start a few rooms further on with, of course, Granet and Ingres.

9. Aix-en-Provence, Musée Granet
Upper right-hand
corner, Greek Youth Sleeping on a Rock
by the Sea
by Géricault
Photo : D. Rykner

The very close hanging of the paintings, which the present author particularly appreciates as a rule, is a total failure here due to the bizarre choices in layout. Thus, in the Salle Granet, the portrait of the artist by Ingres is isolated in the middle of the wall ;much like Moses parting the Red Sea, it seems to be pushing the other paintings against each side (ill. 9). They, in turn, are grouped together in a tight square on either side producing a strange effect. A beautiful Achilles Dying by the sculptor from Aix, Jean-Baptiste Giraud, should have been displayed differently, rather than placing it where it spoils the view of the Jupiter by Ingres, one of the most important works in the museum. Still, it fares better than a small painting by Géricault, stuck up high in a passageway between two rooms and impossible to see (ill. 10). The next gallery covered in a very correct Pompeian red with a XIXth C. Salon type display would be almost perfect if it were not, here again, for the odd arrangement : the smaller formats are placed in a circle around a large landscape (ill. 10).

On the second floor, where the rooms have ceilings too low to allow for more than one row of paintings, the works by Paul Guigou are arranged by size : big, small, big, small...The examples go on and on, not to mention the signs accompanying the paintings, some of which seem to have been placed at random since many of them do not correspond (this was the case in June, things may well have improved since).

10. Aix-en-Provence, Musée Granet
XIXth C. landscape room
Photo : D. Rykner

11. Aix-en-Provence, Musée Granet
Sculpture gallery
Photo : D. Rykner

Fortunately, the sculpture gallery (ill. 11) has been beautifully put together and restitutes the original XIXth C. arrangement. The light enhances the value of the plaster, terracotta and marble statues, even though not much room is left for the museum goer to walk through without touching them (apparently the finger on one statue has already been damaged).

The visit concludes with the display of the Philippe Meyer donation, deposited by the Musée d’Orsay. Except for a few old paintings, for instance a very nice Guardi (ill. 12) and a still-life by Chardin, the collection consists mainly of modern canvases (Alberto Giacometti, André Masson, Pablo Picasso, Nicolas de Stael, Bram van Velde, Fernand Léger) for which the sober layout is well suited.

12. Francesco Guardi (1712-1793)
Piazza San Marco
Oil on canvas - 35 x 45 cm
Aix-en-Provence, Musée Granet
Photo : D. Rykner

What can we conclude about the reopening of the Musée Granet that we would have preferred to praise more enthusiastically ? Paintings can easily be arranged to hang differently. Architecturally, there is no problem in adapting the galleries to a more harmonious presentation. So, let us hope that these errors will be corrected in order to draw attention to the quality of the collections and the wish to display them as fully as possible.

To mark the occasion, a book on the Musée Granet was published in the BNP/Paribas collection.

Denis Coutagne, Christophe Beyeler, Barbara Forest, Ludmila Virassamynaïken, Le Musée Granet, Aix-en-Provence, Fondation BNP Paribas, 128 p., 23 €. ISBN : 978-2-7118-5292-5.

Didier Rykner, lundi 20 août 2007

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