For seven spectacular months, the Musée d’Orsay’s Impressionist gems will shine in the City by the Bay
“Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” Polonius counsels his son, Laertes, in Hamlet. Sound advice for most people, but not for museum directors. Blockbuster shows—the big, important exhibitions that draw crowds, bring excitement to the art world and focus renewed attention on even the most venerable institutions—depend on the time-honored practice of loans between museums.
A case in point is the de Young, San Francisco’s old, established fine arts museum, which re-opened in a new high-design building in 2005. It has a long history of successful mega-shows: In 1979 “King Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs” attracted 1.3 million visitors; a reprise of the show 30 years later was another big hit. Other blockbusters have included “Picasso: the War Years (1937-1945),” “Imperial Tombs of China” and “Monet in Normandy.” In 2008, a major exhibition devoted to contemporary glass artist Dale Chihuly lured 150,000 visitors during its first month alone.
This year, the de Young hopes to wow the art world with not one but two shows consisting entirely of paintings on loan from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. The first, “Birth of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay,” opens on May 22 and runs through September 6. The second, “Van Gogh, Cézanne and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay,” will be on view September 25, 2010, through January 18, 2011. No wonder President Nicolas Sarkozy, in his preface to the hefty catalogue, says the exhibitions have created “a veritable ‘Orsay Year’ in San Francisco.”
The two shows will boast some 240 works, including many of Orsay’s greatest treasures—chefs d’oeuvres by Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Degas, van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne, Renoir, Sisley, Seurat and Vuillard. The genesis of this visual feast is a typical example of the curiously free-wheeling and highly personal way in which the world’s leading museums do business among themselves. Last February, John E. Buchanan, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF, which comprises the Legion of Honor and the de Young museums), was in Paris for the auction of the art collection belonging to his late friend Yves Saint Laurent. While in town, he dined with another friend, Guy Cogeval, president of the Musée d’Orsay.
Cogeval mentioned to Buchanan that his museum soon planned to refurbish and rehang its Impressionist and Post-Impressionist galleries. Would San Francisco be interested in borrowing a number of its paintings while renovations were under way? “I leapt across the table at that offer,” Buchanan recalled in a recent conversation. “I stayed in Paris an extra day and immediately began negotiations.”
Buchanan and his team had virtually a free hand to choose what they wanted from the Orsay collection. The FAMSF director even asked for—and received—the Vuillard that usually hangs behind Cogeval’s desk (Cogeval is a noted Vuillard scholar). Of course, Impressionist paintings haven’t exactly led a reclusive life; many of these iconic images have been shown in numerous exhibitions worldwide. But this large number of paintings became available only because of the renovations at Orsay, and it is highly unlikely that so many will ever go on tour together again. Buchanan says that seeing them will be like taking “a walk through an art history book,” starting with the birth in 1874 of what was then considered avant-garde painting and tracing its spectacular evolution.