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ART REVIEW: BOHEMIANS ROAM THE RIGHT BANK

 

 

 

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 22 JANUARY 2013Bohèmes is the title of a superb exhibition currently being staged at the Grand Palais in Paris, just around the corner from the queues stoically waiting, often in drizzling rain, to visit Edward Hopper. But unlike the sombre, joyless works of the American artist, Bohèmes, theatrically presented and crowded with beautiful, heart-lifting masterpieces from such painters as Van Dongen, Courbet, Renoir and Georges de la Tour, bursts with life, passion and romance.  From the moment one enters, one is swept into the colourful world of the Bohemians, the gypsies whose existence in Western Europe dates back to the 14th century.


Georges de la Tour: La Diseuse de bonne aventure, 1630

"A marvel", stated a town councilor of Arras, a town in Northern France as far back as 1456, "strangers have arrived in town!" These strangers turned out to be Egyptians, from whence the word "gypsy", is derived, and from the beginning, they have been regarded as the symbol of freedom, their image inspiring both writers and artists alike. Paintings from the end of the 15th century showed gypsies in characteristic activities, those of fortune-telling, dancing, travelling and horse-riding. Then in the mid-19th century the myth of the Bohemian grew when young painters, poets and musicians no longer sought the patronage of the rich, but saw themselves as solitary genius,  living in  garrets, impoverished, misunderstood, but intrinsically free. Their ideal was that of liberty and too bad if they lacked food and comfort. They welcomed poverty.

Liberty is thus the central theme of the exhibition, magnificently staged by the opera and theatre designer, Robert Carson, and one stands back to look at and admire the beauty of the canvases shown in a remarkable setting which succeeds in evoking what cannot be seen. Emotion is constantly present, not only as one gazes in fascination at the original, handwritten partition of Mimi’s death scene from Puccini’s La Bohème, but because one is also surrounded by scenery resembling an attic while the strains of Puccini’s opera can be heard in the distance. Further on, there is the imposing staircase of the Grand Palais, dramatically lit and evoking that of the Palais Garnier, where posters advertising Carmen abound. Puccini gives place to Bizet’s immortal score and to the incandescent personality of Carmen herself, a free spirit with no ties or rules.

Music is very present in this wonderful exhibition covering 400 years of history, from the impassioned, guttural gypsy songs accompanying the first part of the show which concentrates on the place of gypsies in art. A popular theme was illustrated in Georges de la Tour’s La Diseuse de bonne aventure, 1630, where a naïve young man, distracted by an old gypsy telling his fortune, is being robbed of his purse by two others. All three women have dark complexions excepting for a young girl with a pale face who is watching. Her light skin illustrates that she is probably of noble birth, as was Preciosa with her emerald eyes in Cervantes’ La gitanilla, the little gypsy. Such stories, of young girls being abducted by gypsies in their childhood, inspired countless artists.


Frans Hals: The Bohemian, 1628-1630

There is little doubt however, that Frans Hals The Bohemian is a true gypsy. With her long, loose, hanging hair and mischievous come hither grin, she’s a carefree young woman of easy virtue. She has all the traditional attributes of sexual freedom, only accentuated by her low décolleté, an erotic symbol. Corot’s Zingara, however, gives another picture of a romantic gypsy girl. She’s beautiful, with a youthful face full of innocence and melancholy, and she is carrying a tambourine. Apparently Corot, known more for his exquisite landscapes, painted over a hundred such portraits in the quiet of his studio, works that he hardly ever exhibited. 

A landscape by Thomas Gainsborough, the first British painter to show an interest in gypsies, shows the popular theme of travelling gypsies in idyllic natural settings. They were seen as a wild, nomadic people roaming freely around the highways of Europe, and Gypsy Encampment c.1778-80 depicts a gypsy family resting under a tree by a camp-fire. The vast forest stretching away below them symbolizes their freedom and wandering ways.

However, one of the more important works which links the theme of the gypsies in art to the more modern myth, born in the 19th century, of the life of the bohemians is Gustave Courbet’s La rencontre ou Bonjour Mr Courbet. Abandoning his career, Courbet set off on foot, declaring that he had to be free, and portrayed himself on his travels in search of a landscape to paint. Throughout his life Courbet remained fascinated with the theme of the travelling bohemian. Even the stagecoach visible in the distance echoed his love of the existence of the vagabond. Renoir’s La Bohemienne is a more contrived work. His model is posed in a verdant setting. She’s wearing the symbolic gypsy earring which is highlighted against her long dark hair, hanging down over her loosely fitting blouse. But her striped skirt and bared breasts don’t fully convince, for this is no gypsy, but Lise, Renoir’s long-time mistress.

Van Gogh’s Encampment of Gypsies with Caravan, with the lop-sided cart, mangy horses, and vividly coloured weather-beaten caravans is set next to a gypsy tent, hung about with rough covers, a décor which  paves the way to another area where Robert Carson has created the surroundings and atmosphere of the café restaurants of Montmartre.


Van Gogh: Encampment of Gypsies with Caravan, 1888

Now the visitor plunged into the world of the brasseries and crowded music halls of 19th century Paris inhabited by the French poets Verlaine, Rimbaud and Baudelaire as well as by Toulouse Lautrec, Picasso and Eric Satie, artists who determined to sweep away tradition.

Carson invites us to sit in the café, one of the inescapable rendezvous of artists with no home. Edgar Degas’ masterpiece, Dans un café ou L’Absinthe hangs here, portraying the actress Ellen André next to the painter, Marcellin Desboutin, a glass of absinth in front of her, and probably not the first judging by the state she is in, eyes gazing vapidly in front of her. The work says everything, from the abuse of alcohol to life on the margins of respectable society. More uplifting is the fantastic portrait of a young and beautiful gipsy woman, La Gitane, (La Curieuse),  by the Belgian painter, Kees Van Dongen, for a  time, member of the short-lived Fauvist movement. He had discovered gipsy women in Spain, and in this painting, the girl is wearing a saffron yellow dress edged in red, with a black fringed shawl over her shoulders.


Kees Van Dongen: La Gitane, (La Curieuse), 1911 


One leaves this splendid exhibition realizing that indeed gypsies and bohemians had much In common, being both wanderers and social misfits, emblematic of the irrepressible freedom that the Nazi regime tried to stamp out when it targeted both gypsies and modern artists. Paintings have been adroitly mingled with music, literature and photography, where visitors go chronologically through time, from works by Leonardo da Vinci to paintings by Picasso, before stepping physically into the artist’s studio, into his attic and into his life. One leaves the cafes of Montmartre and the Grand Palais as if walking on air.

Bohèmes
Through 28 January 2013
Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais
Avenue Winston Churchill
75008 Paris
Tel: (33) 1 44 13 17 17

Based in Paris, Patricia Boccadoro is a senior editor and member of the editorial board of Culturekiosque. She last wrote on the Edward Hopper exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris.

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