Monday, October 8, 2012

Out and About: Exhibits: L'Impressionisme et la Mode

Museums in Paris usually schedule three or four shows a year, and there are several dozen museums in all. So there's always too much to see. But September is a light-exhibit time because there's a museum show hiatus around the end of the summer.
     The Impressionisme et la Mode exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay opened on September 25th, to coincide with Paris Fashion Week (Sept 25-Oct 3). As if Orsay needed a hook to drag people in! The place is always packed, which is why it’s wise to go as early in the morning as possible. Let the doors open and that first line dwindle, then make your appearance.

Impressionism is light, and how it plays on surfaces, and how it's perceived by the eye. That’s how the Impressionists explained what it was they were trying to do: make light visible.
     One subject artists have always painted to show the viewer light is fabrics. The sheen of satin and silk, the depth of velvet, the warm glow of pearls... Which is probably one reason why the Impressionists chose to paint so many women and the yards and yards of fabric that ladies of their era wore. You see it in all their canvases: Renoir, Degas, Morisot, Cassatt, Monet, Manet, Caillebotte and many others.
     This show is every bit as much about the fashion side as about the Impressionism side of the equation. That becomes obvious as of the first room, where long cases are filled with turn-of-the-century dresses. Other cases are spread with fashion magazines from that period. If you’ve come for the artworks, you could just walk right through, but it would be a pity not to admire the handiwork - the detail - that went into the making of these dresses.
     After that introduction, there’s a long room typical of the theatrics that go into a Paris museum exhibit. Everything has been staged to invite you to a fashion show. Dim lighting, huge mirrors, rows and rows of numbered chairs. You’d think you were chez Dior or Givenchy or Yves Saint Laurent. Maybe not Gaulthier; he’s too wild. Several more dresses are spotlighted here.
     Beyond the fashion show décor, there are other rooms, other dresses, other Impressionist masterpieces. A few displays have matched a painting with a period dress very similar to the one worn by the artist’s model. In fact, sometimes you have to look very closely to find the differences. Those are perhaps the most interesting.
     There’s even one room with men’s fashion, in case that should interest the few gentlemen who deigned to accompany their ladies to this feminine exhibit.

A few weeks ago, I visited the Musée d’Orsay with friends, and we weren’t allowed in the old ballroom dating from the time when this was a working railroad station complete with a hotel and a restaurant and facilities for special events. It turns out the ballroom was being set up as part of this exhibit, instead of just sitting bare in its lost splendor. The larger artworks have been put here, and display cases with dresses that revolve on turntables, like very slow waltzing ladies. As all the previous rooms were small and cramped with people and displays, it's a breath of fresh air to reach this vast ballroom, with its towering, ornate ceiling.
     A fitting finish to a show that reflects the past splendor of the Belle Epoque, when women glided elegantly into history. Before a whole new world of wars swallowed them up forever.

et la mode
Until Jan. 20, 2013
Musée d'Orsay
Métro Solférino
Open Tues-Sun 9:30 - 6
and until 9:45 pm
Tuesdays & holidays
Tickets:  € 12 & 9.50


  1. Ah! Good---you were able to see it. Looking forward to when it gets here.

  2. please let me know who painted the last painting of the ballroom scene. thank you.