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Is the Musée d’Orsay a victim of its own success?

It is one of the greatest and most visited art museums in the world, and the only one in an old railway station. But it's also almost impossible to squeeze any more visitors into its packed galleries.

Is the Musée d'Orsay a victim of its own success?
Photo: AFP

Thirty years after the Musee d'Orsay opened its doors for the first time, it has become as much a Paris landmark as its big sister the Louvre just across the River Seine.

But the very success of the museum best known for its unrivalled collection of Impressionist paintings is now causing it problems.

An average of 3.5 million visitors a year pour through its spectacular vaulted nave, making it the “most dense museum in the world”, according to its director of collections Xavier Rey.

There is simply not enough space, he said. Although the Musee d'Orsay is one of the top 10 most visited galleries in the world, it is several times smaller than its rivals.

Photo: Andrew Miller/Flickr

“It will probably be difficult to welcome any more visitors,” said Guy Cogeval, who heads the museum and its smaller offshoot the Orangerie, which houses Claude Monet's water lily murals.

Cogeval, who is stepping down in March, said the “one of the greatest challenges my successor faces is how to deal with this”.

That lack of space will be severely tested this weekend when it opens its doors for free to celebrate its 30th birthday.

Massive donation

But the real problem isn't so much the public as finding a place to show its staggering collection of late 19th-century and early-20th century masterpieces which runs from Courbet's notorious “The Origin of the World” to Manet's reclining nude “Olympia” and Van Gogh's searing self-portraits.

While the museum is packed with some of Degas, Cezanne, Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec's best work, only around 4,400 pieces can be shown at any one time.

 

Photo: Pat M2007/Flickr

That leaves some 164,000 paintings and sculptures in its stores, which is set to grow even further with the massive donation by a Texan couple of their €350-million ($372-million) art collection to the French capital.

Businessman Spencer Hays and his wife Marlene last month signed off on the first instalment of 187 works for the Musee d'Orsay including pieces by Degas and Modigliani worth around 173 million euros.

Their gift, the biggest from a foreign benefactor to France since World War II, also includes important work by Bonnard, Vuillard and Redon.

Some 140 works by Bonnard and Vuillard were also given to the museum in January by the French collector Jean-Pierre Marcie-Riviere.

Faced with such pressure, the museum has bought a neighbouring 18th-century mansion on the banks of the Seine to house its library and research centre on the post-Impressionists.

Architectural gem

The idea of a fine art museum in a railway station was revolutionary when the museum opened in December 1986. Not that the Art Deco terminus was your average transport hub.

Built like the Eiffel Tower and the Grand Palais for the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1900, it had the same architectural exuberance.

Having survived demolition plans in the 1970s, it was converted into a museum for mostly French art dating from the revolutions of 1848 to the outbreak of World War I as one of the late French president Francois Mitterrand's “grands projets” to renew the French capital.

Photo: AFP

A runaway success from the start, with its architectural elegance and head-turning collection equally praised, Rey said that “one can no longer imagine the museum anywhere but in this station”.

With another show featuring Van Gogh to open in March, it's biggest hit remains the exhibition questioning if the Dutch artist was really mad — “Van Gogh-Artaud, the Suicide of Society” — which brought in more than 654,000 people in 2014.

Some of its biggest successes have even surprised its curators, with almost half a million people flocking to see an exhibition this year on Rousseau, who was derided as a “Sunday painter” by his contemporaries.

A 2013 show on the male nude in art, “Masculin, Masculin”, which Cogeval curated, was “to my great surprise a very big popular success with 430,000 visitors,” he said.

The surprises don't end there.

The so-called academic painters from the mid-19th century, who had long fallen out of fashion like William Bouguereau and Charles Gleyre, are now having an unexpected resurgence in popularity, said Rey.

Photo: Shadowgate/Flickr

 

by AFP's Antoine Froidefond

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HISTORY

‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.

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