Second wave of French masters alights in The City

He stares out at us with those intense blue eyes, his bearded face bristling with reds and yellows, white, green and blue brushstrokes. Painted in the fall of 1887, a year after he had moved to Paris and discovered the pulsing color of Impressionist and Pointillist painting, Vincent van Gogh’s “Portrait of the Artist” blazes with energy and emotion.
It’s one of seven paintings by the passionate Dutch master in Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay, a spellbinding exhibition on display at San Francisco’s de Young Museum through Jan. 18. Some of the most celebrated works in Western art come into view as you walk through the galleries, among them Gauguin’s “Tahitian Women” and Van Gogh’s “Starry Night Over the Rhone” and “The Artist’s Bedroom at Arles.” Cézanne’s shimmering landscapes and dynamic still lifes appear, along with more than a dozen Pointillist paintings by Seurat and Signac. You see the big, beautiful decorative panels and intimate domestic interiors of Bonnard and Vuillard. Toulouse-Lautrec’s penetrating pictures. The magical paintings of Henri Rousseau.

“This is one of the greatest exhibitions of Post-Impressionism ever put on,” said Guy Cogeval, the director of Paris’ Musée d’Orsay, who’s not given to hyperbole. “When you see all these paintings put together, it’s unbelievable.”

Visitors will probably agree when they’re surrounded by the works in Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Beyond. It’s the second of two marvel-filled exhibitions from the Orsay, a converted fin-de-siècle train station that contains the world’s premier collection of 19th- and early 20th-century French art. While the museum is partially closed for renovation, some of its most prized paintings are on tour. This show arrives on the heels of Birth of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay, which placed the radical New Painting of Monet, Renoir, Degas and others in the context of the artistic traditions and historical moment from which they emerged.

The story continues with this exhibition. It explores the rich artistic currents that sprang from Impressionism in the 1880s and ’90s and fed the 20th-century inventions of Picasso, Matisse and the German Expressionists. It brings together late works by Monet, Renoir, Degas and Pissarro — whose art continued to evolve and change — with the paintings of younger artists who came through Impressionism to create a range of personal styles that fused color, form and feeling in expressive new ways.

The term Post-Impressionism was coined by the English artist and critic Roger Fry for a 1910 London exhibition that included the work of Seurat, Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec. It became a catchall for the styles of those and other important avant-garde artists of the late 19th century. They were as different aesthetically as the Neo-Impressionist Signac, whose glowing “Women at the Well” is on view, and the literary-minded Symbolist Odilon Redon, whose mysterious paintings are here as well.

“Post-Impressionism is a bundle of styles that, in their diversity and richness, mark the uniqueness of the time,” said John Buchanan, the French-art-loving director of San Francisco’s Fine Arts Museums, which include the de Young and the Palace of the Legion of Honor. He was standing among the Cézannes and Van Goghs at the Orsay last fall, marveling at paintings he’s seen countless times. “Younger artists brought more rigors to the work that did not exist in Impressionist painting.”

Rather than capturing the fleeting moment, an impression of the visible world, artists such as Van Gogh, Cézanne and Gauguin and his Symbolist followers sought to convey the essence of things, an inner truth.
Cézanne, the solitary Provençal master who’d worked closely with Pissarro and participated in the Impressionist exhibitions, rejected the spontaneous, ephemeral quality of Impressionism. He aimed to reveal the essential forms beneath the surface, to bring a sense of structure and solidity back to painting. As Cézanne famously put it, “I want to make of Impressionism something solid and lasting, like the art in the museums.”

Seurat had something similar in mind, but he went about it differently. He based his revolutionary paintings — in which small dots of pure color merge in the viewer’s eye to create brilliantly luminous harmonies — on scientific theories of color and perception. Two of the studies for his epochal masterpiece, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grand Jatte,” are on view here, along with a score of other vital Seurat works, including the pre-Pointillist 1882 gem “The Little Peasant in Blue.”

Van Gogh, who had absorbed Seurat’s ideas about complementary colors, invented a deeply personal style with blazing colors and gestural brushwork that gave voice to his turbulent emotions and spirituality. Gauguin also sought to express subjective emotion and religious feeling with the simplified forms and vivid colors of his dreamlike symbolic paintings.
“When you look at a painting by Gauguin or Van Gogh, you’re struck by the nonimitative colors, the new perspective, even the abstraction of the figure,” said Musée d’Orsay curator Stéphane Guégan.

“The painting is more conceptual, less spontaneous. Certainly it seems more modern, because it seems less realistic. But we have to challenge the whole idea of Post-Impressionism as a reaction to Impressionism. We have to see the different generations in relation to each other.”

Bonnard and Vuillard, the most famous of the Gauguin-inspired group called the Nabis (from the Hebrew word for “prophet”), often visited Monet at Giverny while the great man worked on his magnificent “Water Lilies” series.
“They wanted to see how he achieved his late painting,” Guégan said. “The process was inseparable from what the younger painters were doing at the time, the renewal of decorative painting, the ambition to break with easel paintings.”
Five of Vuillard’s exquisite 7-foot-tall “Public Gardens” decorative paintings — part of a set of nine he created for the home of a Parisian publisher — are here. You also see a rich array of works by his fellow Nabis Maurice Denis and Paul Sérusier, among them Sérusier’s abstract landscape “The Talisman, the Aven River at the Bois d’Amour.” He painted the pioneering work in 1888 near Pont-Aven in Brittany, where a group of young artists, among them the gifted émile Bernard, whose work appears in abundance here, gathered around the charismatic Gauguin.

Like Cézanne, Gauguin had gone through an Impressionist phase before finding his own path. He participated in many of the eight Impressionist exhibitions, including the final one in 1886, a pivotal year in art history and the general starting point for this show. Gauguin’s mature style began to take shape in the unspoiled environment of Brittany, where he was inspired by the religious zeal and archaic culture of the Breton peasants.

“Of all the artists we present in San Francisco, Gauguin is the one who insists most on composition, on the intellectual,” Cogeval said. “Seurat and Gauguin, the great masters of this New Painting, rarely composed a landscape for itself. They recomposed it, giving it the geometric value, for Seurat, and for Gauguin, the poetic value.”
This eye-opening exhibition, sponsored by Bank of America, is filled with poetic paintings. In all likelihood, they won’t leave France en masse again. Buchanan is right when he calls this a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

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