Post-Impressionism on display

Oct. 22, 2010, 12:32 a.m.

Post-Impressionism on display
Van Gogh's "Bedroom at Arles" (Courtesy of Musee d'Orsay)

The second of two installations from Musee d’Orsay’s permanent collection of Impressionist works, “Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces,” was displayed in only one museum in all of North America – the de Young Museum in San Francisco. This might explain the seas of observers who have swarmed de Young’s halls since Sept. 25. These late 19th-century paintings have been drilled into our generation’s understanding of art and history – whether through textbook covers or oversized prints decorating your roommate’s wall, you know a Van Gogh and can recognize a Cézanne.

The first room displayed seven incredibly famous Van Gogh paintings, including his vibrant blue-green “Bedroom at Arles”(1889), a prickly self-“Portrait of the Artist”(1887) and of course, some flowers. Van Gogh’s “Starry Night Over the Rhone” (1888) had the most heads floating around it, making it nearly impossible to zoom in on the shimmering painting. In the same room hung the works of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, an artist whose color palette and stroke pattern intimately reflected Van Gogh’s.

Developing chronologically, the next room housed Paul Cézanne’s masterpieces, depicting onions in his self-explanatory “Still Life With Onions” (1896-98), handsome nudes (“Bathers”) and some fruits (“Kitchen Table”). Another distinguished presence in the room was Pierre-Auguste Renoir, displayed in several large works, including his famous “A Dance in the Country” (1883).

And then the world got brighter stepping into Paul Gauguin’s space, portrayed in 10 works, from the yellow Christ “Self-Portrait” (1889) to various paintings of exotic Tahitian women. This signified the shift into Cloisonnism, a style of post-Impressionism defined by flat and colorful forms, boldly contoured and highly abstracted. Several artists, such as Paul Sérusier and Émile Bernard helped create this form, having worked closely with Gauguin. One of the most striking pictures is Bernard’s “Madeleine in the Bois d-Amour,” a painting of Gauguin’s sister, who Bernard later fell madly in love with.

The final movement in the exhibit showcased Les Nabis, a group of avant-garde artists highly influenced by Impressionism. Their works ranged from a decorative style to Japanese prints, from miniature canvases to panoramic paintings covering entire walls. Two artists, Pierre Bonnard and Jean-Édouard Vuillard, explored emotionally charged scenes of domestic life; Bonnard’s “The White Cat” was the most famous of these decorative paintings (perhaps because the cat is both perfect and fluffy). Their works mirrored the brush strokes and vague, dream-like feel of early Impressionist works. But artists such as Henri Rousseau, in works like “The Snake Charmer,” explored divergent color schemes and symbolic, unrealistic imagery.

The images in the exhibit had both vivid reactions to Impressionism and subdued reflections, so the overall experience felt both cohesive and dizzyingly impressive.

“Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne and Beyond” runs through Jan. 18 at the M.H. de Young Museum in San Francisco.

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