Saturday, September 8, 2012

Out and About: The Permanent Collection of L'Orangerie

Once upon a time there was a palace with vast gardens dotted with orange and lemon trees. But this palace - let’s call it the Louvre - was in the north of France, where winters are too cold for citrus trees. So a building was constructed at the far end of the garden - let’s call it the Tuileries - to keep them warm through the winter months. And maybe because there were more orange trees than there were lemons, it was called l’orangerie.
     Then one day the king met with an unfortunate and somewhat sticky end a few steps from his orange trees, out on the huge square that’s now ironically called Concorde, where his head - the Head of State - was handily separated from the rest of him. And after things calmed down and a few centuries passed with no king at all and no citrus trees, it was decided - by the People, whose heads had communally replaced the disembodied Head of State - that it was a shame to let this building go to waste.
     But what to do with it?

Actually, that last part is just a fairy tale, because that king was beheaded in 1793 and L'Orangerie was built in 1852... although it was to house orange trees. Initially. But later, without a king who requires fresh oranges, it stood empty, used from time to time for sports events or concerts. And as a place for exhibits, ranging from dog or flower shows to trade fairs. Then came the Great War in 1914, and it was used to house munitions and to billet soldiers on leave from the trenches.
     After the war ended, it was decided to use L’Orangerie as an art museum. And that’s where Monet comes in. Monet and his Nymphéas. It was Monet’s gift to his country, and he worked closely with the architect to make the perfect setting for his water lilies, all 22 panels of them. He intended them to be an ode to peace, after the four long years of warfare France had just experienced. But for some mysterious reason, Monet refused to let anyone see them until after his death. Five months after he passed away the museum opened to the public.

My photo of the real one
     I saw them first when I wasn’t even a teenager. And when I saw them again decades later, I mentioned to one of the guards that they must have been moved since I was there last. She said no, they were still where they had been glued in place in 1927. When I told her I remembered them being in a dark room, so they must have been downstairs, she explained the building had undergone six years of work to remove an added-on "attic" level and open Les Nymphéas back up to the light, so people could see them as Monet intended. You’ll find models of L’Orangerie’s different reincarnations on the library level as you go downstairs to see the other treasures of this small-but-mighty museum: the Walter-Guillaume Collection, an amazing collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist masterpieces.

Paul Guillaume,
by Modigliani
Paul Guillaume was never destined to become one of the leading art dealers of his time. He came from a modest family and didn’t have a lot of education. Then his parents moved near Montmartre. The Montmartre when Picasso and Juan Gris and Van Dongen were living and painting at the Bateau Lavoir right around the corner from my home here. When Utrillo and Modigliani were roaming and boozing and baudy-ing the winding streets of the Butte.
     After Guillaume’s death, his widow made two gifts to L’Orangerie, bequeathing 144 of the artworks the dealer just couldn’t bear to part with while he was alive. Sometimes this is done in lieu of inheritance taxes, but whatever the reason, it’s overwhelming to see these famous canvases side by side, one after the other, and try to imagine them hanging on one person’s walls. (Hint: There’s a room off to the right just as you come down the staircase; in it are photos and a model of the Guillaume apartment, with all these wonders up on their walls.)
Cézanne's Déjeuner sur l'herbe
     The artists’ works are hung pretty much in chronological order. First come the Renoirs, with their full-bodied, rosy-skinned women and the usual bouquets of flowers or scatterings of fruit. Then comes Matisse, and the Cézannes. But it doesn’t end there. Around the corner are room after room of Picasso and Derain, Utrillo and Modigliani, the post-Impressionists Soutine and Le Douanier Rousseau. There are probably more masterpieces here per square inch/cm than anywhere else, even in the sister museum across the river, the Musée d’Orsay. And most of these canvases will be familiar to anyone who ever studied this period in art history, because these are not just minor works by the titans of the era. These are the real deal.

Le Douanier Rousseau -
La Carriole du Père Junier
Derain - Nièce du peintre assise

     There’s even a small room where I discovered a name new to me: Marie Laurencin, who seems to have had a dream-like way of portraying women which was innovative for the time but hasn’t aged well. She was evidently hot news for a while, the talk of the town. Sure, there are touches of Cubism, and signs of things she learned from schmoozing with Picasso and his friends, but overall her women all end up looking similar and tend to evoke those big-eyed waif paintings by Walter Keane that were popular in the 1950s. (Strangely enough, Keane said that he got the idea for them in Europe when he was an art student after World War II and sad waifs must have been abundant. Still, I wonder if he saw Laurencin’s works.)

L’Orangerie is often overlooked by visitors to Paris, which is a mistake. It’s conveniently located almost opposite the Musée d’Orsay, which you can reach by the quirky Senghor footbridge with its two graceful crisscrossed levels. It’s also a convenient and bucolic walk through the beheaded king’s Tuileries gardens, where you can watch children sail their boats in the fountain and enjoy Maillol’s voluptuous statues or sit under the chestnut trees and enjoy an overpriced cup of café.
     Plus its location above the Place de la Concorde gives you a perfect perspective for a killer photo of the Champs-Elysées, complete with the Arc de Triomphe in the distance. What more could a tourist want?


Musée de l’Orangerie
Place de la Concorde/Tuileries Gardens
Paris 1er
Métro:  Concorde

Open daily, except Tuesdays, May 1st & Dec 25th
9 a.m. - 6 p.m.
Entry € 7.50, reduced € 5
Free the first Sunday of each month
Musée d'Orsay / Musée de l'Orangerie Passport : € 13
(valid 4 days, good for one admission to the permanent collections of each museum)

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