Monday, 30 June 2014

At the Jacquemart-André

Picture: Musée Jacquemart-André
Last week I went to the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris. I made a special trip to see a masterpiece by Fragonard that I've long wanted to see, La Fête à Saint-Cloud (above), which is on loan until 21 July. This huge picture was probably part of an ensemble for a room along with some cut-down canvases at the National Gallery in Washington, one of which is also on loan here for the exhibition From Watteau to Fragonard: La Fête Galantes. I don't care for fête galantes, those briefly-fashionable bucolic bourgeois scenes that subvert the traditional hierarchy of painting types, falling somewhere between landscape, genre and history. These frivolous pictures epitomise for me all that is most despicable in the rococo. But they sometimes rose to great heights. I admire some of Watteau's smaller pictures, and you'd have to have a heart of stone not to love his drawings. And Fragonard's large decorative works are brilliant, especially the room at the Frick.
Pierrot Content, Jean Antoine Watteau
Picture: Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza
The small exhibition at the Jacquemart-André is well-conceived and on just the right scale to convey the range and development of the fête galantes without becoming repetitive. It starts with some of Watteau's best works, including the lovely Pierrot Concert in the Thyssen, which inspired Lucien Freud, and the Dulwich Les Plaisirs du Bal. His followers Lancret and Pater are often slightly regarded; Pater in particular is considered merely derivative. But well-chosen loans show both these artists at their best, as talented inventors in their own right. 

I had considered the fête galantes a monolithic type, but the exhibition illustrates its development, with Boucher's pastoral scenes, the incorporation of Orientalist themes and eventually Fragonard's grand decorations. There's also a small selection of drawings, which were an especially important part of the art of all the major exponents of the fête galantes. 

The final room with Fragonard's La Fête à Saint-Cloud was the highlight for me, because it included so many excellent pictures I hadn't seen before. La Fête à Saint-Cloud is owned by the French central bank, and is probably the most important Fragonard that isn't usually publicly accessible. It's shown here alongside a vivacious preliminary study for part of the composition, and Blindman's Buff from Washington DC, which was probably part of the same cycle. It must have been magnificent, better even than the famous surviving cycle at the Frick. The Frick pictures are represented here by two large oil sketches (another is in the Frick in Pittsburgh). It's all degenerate bourgeois frippery, of course, but so wonderfully painted and so magnificent.

The Jacquemart-André is a favourite of mine, but it's the wrong venue for exhibitions. It's a small house museum in a Parisian mansion, with detached frescoes by Tiepolo, some good French furniture, paintings by Mantegna, Uccello, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Chardin and Fragonard, and sculptures including important bronzes by Donatello. There are some rather inflated attributions and some of the pictures are in quite poor condition, but I like its range and idiosyncrasy. Unfortunately one room from the permanent collection was utterly ruined for the exhibition - a large screen was showing a loud, intrusive film about the exhibition, with seating taking up half of the gallery, and the other half was roped off entirely. So the glories of the permanent collection were denied us in favour of a temporary show. And on a previous visit, during a more popular exhibition, the crowds were so immense that almost nothing could be seen at all; it simply cannot accommodate the large and variable crowds that accompany successful exhibitions. I liked this show, but I wish it were at a different venue. The Jacquemart-André should stick to displaying its own collection properly.

Around the corner is the Musée Nissim de Camondo, another house museum with a strong collection of decorative art and a handful of pictures, including good Guardi. Camondo's impressionist paintings were given to the state and are now stars of the Musée d'Orsay. Here the highlight is his superb French furniture. The house itself is a twentieth century pastiche of an eighteenth century townhouse, and it's not altogether successful. But the calm atmosphere is a welcome break from the frenetic Jacquemart-André, and I always like to visit the Camondo second, as a kind of decompression chamber. Unfortunately on this visit the Guardi room was closed, without explanation, but there's still so much else worth seeing. 

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