French Art Masters Are in Town

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French Art Masters Are in Town

The National Museum of Contemporary Art at Toksu Palace in central Seoul is exhibiting a collection of 19th century paintings, sketches and photographs from the Orsay Museum.

"Masterpieces of the Musee d'Orsay - Impressionism and Modern Art" is a rare opportunity for art lovers in Korea to see first hand works from the famous French museum.

The exhibition showcases 70 works from nearly all major French 19th and early 20th century painters, from Pierre-Auguste Renoir to Edgar Degas, Paul Cezanne, Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and George Seurat. The periods covered are realism, impressionism, postimpressionism and symbolism, with an emphasis on impressionism.

"This is an apt time for the Korean public to view impressionist works," said Kim Mi-jin, an independent curator who organized the exhibition. She pointed out similarities between the impressionist period and the current social climate. The impressionist movement took place during the Industrial Revolution and advances in photographic techniques brought about paintings that captured a momentary scene. Today computer graphics are again changing the way artists view the world.

Ms. Kim also believes people are turning away from rationalism and returning to sensual art. "Contemporary art has been didactic and issue-based," Ms. Kim said. "It has ignored the fundamental purpose of art - emotions. It's time we look at how we feel as well as how we think."

Impressionism was once considered scandalous. In the 19th century there was just one way for artists to become successful - to exhibit at Le Salon, an annual French state-sponsored exhibition. But in 1874, 55 artists, including Cezanne, Camille Pissarro, Renoir, Degas, Claude Monet, Edouard Manet and a woman, Berthe Morisot, held an independent show. After seeing Monet's "Impression Sunrise," outraged critic Louis Leroy claimed, "Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished." Leroy is attributed with having coined the term "impressionists."

The impressionists broke the conventions of the French Academy of Fine Arts, a conservative school that had dominated art training since 1648. They recorded everyday life instead of trying to teach a moral lesson through historical, mythological and biblical themes. Often their paintings depicted sensory reactions rather than idealized images with smooth surfaces.

The impressionists chose both urban and rural settings, often capturing their subjects outdoors rather than in a studio. Degas prowled the opera and ballet for his subjects. Monet painted glorious weekend scenes and immortalized the Paris railroad. Since it was not seen as proper for women to set up easels in public, female artists like Morrisot and Mary Cassatt focused on domestic scenes.

The impressionists also experimented with colors. After the second impressionist exhibition, the critic Albert Wolff wrote, "Try to make Monsieur Pissarro understand that trees are not violet; that the sky is not the color of fresh butter."

The impressionist movement eventually gained public acceptance, but even by the early 1900s some museums still rejected impressionist works. After refusing to show Morisot's "Summer's Day," a trustee of London's National Gallery explained that the gallery should remain a temple of art that did not tolerate "an exhibition of the works of the modern French art-rebels in the sacred precincts of Trafalgar Square."

Another art critic, Roger Fry, coined the phrase "postimpressionism" after the deaths of Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat and Cezanne. These artists sought to express meaning that could not be grasped by the senses alone.

Three years ago, an organization called GNC approached the Orsay Museum with the idea of bringing a large-scale exhibition to Seoul. GNC aids French museums in exhibiting in Korea. The museum was skeptical about sending a large amount of priceless art to Korea. "They were afraid of the tensions between North and South Korea, that war could break out," Ms. Kim said. When Ms. Kim, who acted as the go-between, argued that the Korean public was hungry for an impressionist art exhibition, the museum finally agreed.

And despite the 10,000 won ($8.30) entrance fee, "Masterpieces" is indeed attracting crowds. Over 100,000 people have viewed the exhibition so far. On the opening weekend at the end of October, queues of people waited to get in.

The Orsay Museum opened at the end of 1986 with the intent to display "in all its diversity, the artistic creation of the western world from 1848 to 1914." The museum was built in 1900 and was originally a train station and hotel. The architect, Victor Laloux, sought to integrate the station into its surroundings. The Louvre, the Tuileries and the Palais of the Legion of Honor are nearby.

Of the many masterpieces shown, Ms. Kim believes Jean-Francois Millet's "Des Glaneuses" is the highlight. She attributes his popularity to his earthy palette and his "pioneering spirit." While Millet displayed an affinity with impressionism, his technique and tonal values differed. Yet his rural subject matter is often attributed as influencing Seurat, Monet, Van Gogh and Pissarro. In the exhibition he is placed with the realists.

The most expensive painting displayed is Monet's "La Gare Saint-Lazare." Another highlight is Renoir's "Jeunes Filles au Piano." Soft brushstrokes and luminous colors characterize Renoir's works.

The paintings are crammed into two dimly lit rooms. Depending on the time of day and the crowds of students, a leisurely viewing may not be possible. The exhibition is open Tuesday through Friday from 9 p.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

The exhibition, sponsored by the French embassy, will end on Feb. 27. For more information, call 02-779-5310.

by Joe Yong-hee

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