The new Musée d’Orsay – first impressions

March 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’m writing this from Paris, where I’m currently on a work trip (although given the nature of the work and the fact that it’s Paris, the line between work and pleasure is nigh well nonexistent) – which means that after months of anticipation, I’ve finally seen the renovated Musée d’Orsay. If you know me and/or you’ve been following this blog, you’ve probably realised by now that it’s one of my favourite museums on earth. I don’t think I’ve been to Paris a single time without paying it at least a flying visit. Over the last twelve years, I’ve even come to love its infuriating quirks – the Neo-Impressionism gallery with its ranks of girders that break up the space so oddly, the tiny galleries squirreled away in corners on the upper floors that nobody but the most hardened Orsay-goer (to wit, me) would ever be able to find once, let alone twice, the strangely tomb-like feel of the galleries flanking the nave – so I went in with some trepidation. Nearly three hours later, I came out with very sore feet but feeling pleased for the most part:


-The old hang felt very old-fashioned, and not in a good way – the collection was carved up into orthodox categories (Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Symbolism, Naturalism, etc.) and it was difficult to get a sense of how heterogeneous the nineteenth century really was. Even worse, painting was, with the exception of the few canvases in the Art Nouveau galleries, strictly separated from sculpture and the decorative arts – a very Modernist parti-pris that has little to do with how the arts mingled when the works were first created. The new hang, although not a complete overhaul, integrates different media much more harmoniously. Different styles, too – one of my favourite galleries was one devoted to night scenes which brought together artists one wouldn’t normally picture together (Manet, Gérôme, Le Douanier Rousseau…)

-The Symbolist gallery works beautifully, albeit with one hiccup (see below). Symbolism is presented in all its complexity and contradiction, and as a truly international movement (I had to restrain myself from cheering out loud when I saw that they’d hung Burne-Jones and Moreau together).

-The Pavillon d’Amont has been improved almost beyond recognition. It used to be the orphan of the museum, its entrance so easy to miss that if you ever succeeded in finding it, you’d be all but guaranteed to have the galleries to yourself. Now it’s clearly signposted from both the top and ground floors so its newly-refurbished galleries of Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau and Nabi decorative schemes are no longer doomed to emptiness.

-The space allotted to photography and the graphic arts is now much more generous.

-There are introductory text panels on the walls now. This may not seem like something to get excited about, but in France (where one is apparently expected not to set foot in a museum without already knowing everything about what’s in it) it’s very, very unusual.

On the fence

-They’ve gotten rid of the neutral faux-stone grey colour scheme and all of the galleries are painted in strong, deep colours (reds, blues, greens, brown). On the whole, they complement the objects beautifully, but I can’t help wondering whether this will stand the test of time.


-The outer Symbolist gallery is essentially one long corridor – with no benches in sight. The work shown here demands quiet contemplation; the architecture urges the viewer to rush ahead.

-The Impressionist galleries are still heaving at all hours (although they could probably be expanded to the size of a football [in either the American or the British sense] field and they’d still be packed).

-I have to admit to missing the old, dark, low-ceilinged pastel galleries with their gently humming climate control that made the pastels themselves appear to be generating the sound. But perhaps I’m alone in feeling this way?

Speaking of pastels, I didn’t see Nocturne in the Parc Royal, Brussels… because it’s currently in a Degouve de Nuncques exhibition in Namur. Any feelings of foolishness at having claimed that there was little material on Degouve de Nuncques have been trumped by happiness at having been proven wrong. As well as the urgent need to start planning a visit to Namur…


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