Puvis de Chavanns Young women at the seaside smallerFrom the exhibition Huysmans from Degas to Grünewald: As seen by Francesco Vezzoli, in principle running April 3 through July 19 at the Strasbourg Museum of Contemporary Art (after an earlier run at the Orsay Museum, to whose boffo press service we owe these images): Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898), “Jeunes filles au bord de la mer (Young women at the sea-side), 1879. Oil on canvas, 205.4 x 156 cm.  Paris, Musée d’Orsay. Photo © musée d’Orsay / rmn. (For more art from the exhibition, click here.)

Text by Emile Zola
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

One of the benefits of the Orsay Museum’s latest penchant for re-envisioning  the late 19th-century work which is its charge through the eyes of contemporaneous critics  is that the polyglot writers often dictate a polyglot selection of artists which means that major figures overdue for their own solo shows get a cameo. Such is the case with the exceptional  Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898)’s 1879 oil “Jeunes filles au bord de la mer (Young women at the sea-side),” which features in the work exhibited at the Orsay and theoretically to be exhibited through July 19 at the Strasbourg Museum of Contemporary Art for  Huysmans from Degas to Grünewald: As seen by Francesco Vezzoli. Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907) may well have referred to himself as a “Dutchman putrefied with Parisianism,” but if we’re to judge by the Puvis painting above, his tastes were anything but. It’s no surprise that in 1880 — a year after this tableau was made — Emile Zola invited Huysmans to collaborate in the collection “Les Soirées de Medan.” Which connection is enough of a pretense for us to turn the Puvis floor over to the great man, as Zola singled out the painter in his review of the 1875 Salon, published in two “Letters from Paris” which appeared in Le Sémaphore de Marseille of May 3 and 4 and in “Le Messager de l’Europe” in Saint-Petersburg. Today’s translation and art goes out to Holly, and to all the Holly Golightlys of the world, in esperance for the period when we’ll all be able to go lightly again. — PB-I

I’ve saved Puvis de Chavannes’s large tableau for the end. Secluded at the Sainte-Croix convent, Radegonde gives refuge to poets and protects the world of Letters against the epoch’s barbary. Here at last is a truly original talent, who trained himself far from any Academic influences. He alone can succeed in the art of decorative painting, in the vast frescos exposed to the raw light of public institutions. In our times, with the crumbling of classic principles, the fate of mural paintings has become critical. The nobility of heroes, the simplicity of the drawing, every rule which makes the tableau a type of bas-relief in which the ‘cooler’ colors have trouble standing out in the midst of the marble of churches and palaces, have collapsed, making way for the explosion of the romantic brush. And suddenly, it seems to me, Puvis de Chavannes arrives and finds a breach in this impasse. He knows how to be interesting and alive, in simplifying the lines and painting with uniform tones. Radegonde, surrounded by nuns in white gowns, is listening to a poet declaiming verse between the walls of a convent. The scene exudes a grandiose and peaceful charm. To tell the truth, for me Puvis de Chavannes is but a precursor. It is indispensible that large-scale painting is able to find subjects in contemporary life. I don’t know who will be the painter with the genius to know how to extract the art of our civilization, and I don’t know how he’ll do it. But it is indisputable that art does not depend on either draperies or the antique nude; it takes root in humanity itself and consequently every society must have its own conception of beauty.

From Emile Zola, “Ecrits sur l’Art,” copyright 1991 Editions Gallimard.

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