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 . . .


  1. The artist has captured you well...imagine sketching all your siblings! I remember that you come from a large family!
    I await the next portrait...

  2. Mater - there's so much to say here. The way portraits captured social change. The personal experience of portraiture. Self-portraits. Such a rich topic - thank you. My mother had a portrait painted of us oldest three children. Subsequently the guy went on to paint Kennedy children and prices rose out of reach. So for my youngest sister, years later, mom had a charcoal portrait done. Always reminded that the youngest was a separate being, in a way, 10 years younger than me and 5 years younger than #3. Much loved, however, and ravishingly beautiful.

    Oh, I could go on. But I'll wait for you.

  3. How fortunate you are to have access to this exhibit! I'd go multiple times as well had I the opportunity. I'm looking forward to reading your follow up thoughts. I'm adding both of those books you've mentioned here to my list. Have you read "The Judgement of Paris"? An absolutely fascinating and riveting history of Manet and the early days of Impressionism. It was interesting how quickly certain topics and presentations went from being "shocking" to the Paris art world, to being acceptable and even commercial.

    We never had portraits sketched or painted, only photographed.

  4. HHR: You remember well -- the portraits, all framed separately, covered a wall. As for the next portrait, I'm shy even to describe it and you definitely won't get to see it . . .
    LPC: I'm a huge fan of portraits as a genre and in London, we try to stop in at the National Portrait Gallery several times per visit -- what a treasure that is!
    Interesting that even separately, those family portraits capture a relationship between siblings. And obviously very impressive that your portrait artist went on to "do" the Kennedys (and mine ended up sketching in a mall!)
    I could exhaust many posts on this topic and I'll be happy to have you chime in . . . my next post will be much more personal, as you may be beginning to guess . . .
    Pseu: Isn't that a wonderful book?! Such an interesting case study of how quickly taste changes!

  5. Wow, I wish I could see that exhibition. Interesting you mention Berger - a teacher made us read Ways of Seeing when I was doing the International Baccalaureate and it was one of those life-changing moments for me ...
    In other odd instance of synchronicity, Kid 2 is right this minute poring over a book I have about teaching children to draw!

  6. Tiffany: I didn't get to Berger as early in life as you did -- how lucky that you had a teacher like that. I do think the book is revelatory and potentially life-changing in many ways.
    Does Kid 2 draw already? Or will the book be an inspiration . . .


I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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