Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Modern Women . . .

This photo -- of Paul Helleu's Woman Leaning on a Table accompanied Robin Laurence's Georgia Straight piece on the VAG exhibit.

The August to Autumn transition I've been nattering about lately does not only concern the impending Fall weather and the return to school. Vancouverites, as well as tourists to our fair city, should also be aware that the fabulous exhibition -- The Modern Woman: Drawings by Degas, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and Other Masterpieces from the Musée d'Orsay, Paris -- at the Vancouver Art Gallery is entering its last days, as it will close September 6th.

This is a wonderful collection of drawings, and what's exciting about it is that while these have long been held by/at the Orsay in Paris, they have never been shown there -- given the vastness of the Orsay's collection, many, many works rarely see the light of day. And because that light can be so damaging, particularly for works as delicate as these -- drawings on paper -- and because travel is also perilous, the works seemed doomed, to languish well-protected, but unseen. However, new technologies (containers which keep each drawing separate and protected from any external pressure) and an inspiring collaboration between the Orsay and the Vancouver Art Gallery have brought these drawings outside of Paris for the first time anywhere, ever. Lucky us!


Many of us already know how the paintings of this period, particularly those of the French impressionists, reflected the social change of the time -- the urbanization and industrialization of the landscape and the class and gender changes which accompanied these. The drawings capture the same changes, but, as drawings tend to do, they capture them more intimately, in smaller gestures, nuances, closer up.
I'm going back again this week to check on some favourites before they're shipped back to their home in Paris. After all, given how long they've been sitting in the dark, I am unlikely to get another chance to view them, in this lifetime, despite regular trips to Paris. My favourites include Edouard Vuillard's Portrait of the Countess Anna de Noailles, 1931, charcoal on paper of the countess sitting in bed, writing, with her books and treasured objects surrounding her. I loved Pissarro's Bust of an Old Woman Knitting,if only because it was so difficult to discern the eponymous activity, even with my own knitting experience. For sheer prettiness, Jacques Emile Blanche's Young Women in White, with two sweet young things in Gibson girl hairdos lounging on a long ottoman. And the portrait featured above by Paul Helleu -- the photo hardly discloses the sweeping, often jagged, lines of the pastels, the puzzle of how those transmute themselves into the portrait's restfulness.

The exhibition sent me home to scout out my copies of John Berger's Ways of Seeing and, even more relevant, T. J. Clark's trenchant analysis The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers. And, inevitably, got me thinking more about the male gaze, since an important section of the exhibition is devoted to the nude, and since so much of our visual self-awareness, in or out of clothes, is conditioned by that gaze. Interestingly, the only two portraits I've ever had sketched have been done by female artists. Besides pulling the aforementioned books of my shelves, I also dug out this portrait, sketched when I was 17, just graduating from high school. If any of my sisters are reading this post, I'd love to know if you still have your portraits -- the artist, Jean Aspa, was a friend of a friend of my parents, and she agreed to come to the house and sketch all of our large clan, as I remember, although not my parents, sadly.
Decades later, in another city 2000 kilometres away, my second daughter and I were in a mall when I spotted the same woman sketching likenesses at a booth she'd set up. Somewhere, I've stored away a portrait I had her make of Rhiannon in her red plaid jumper . . .

More next post, on nudes, and the male gaze, and the only other portrait I've ever had sketched . . .