Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, and Their Times: Room One

Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, and Their Times (show title) On a freezing Monday, with less than forty-five minutes to spare, I limited myself to only one room of the Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, and Their Times show at the Frist Art Museum, and in that roughly half hour, I found an excess of satisfying art. One of the joys of membership is that I feel I can come and go as I please, so when another free hour arises, I’ll go and take in another room. I have until the fifth of May.

Details draw me in, perhaps, more than full compositions, like the textural lines Degas, tiny bronze horse-headon the cheek of a tiny bronze horse-head by Degas, or the brushstrokes in the beard and cheeks of a portrait by Cezanne. There’s the short column of green in the background of a Toulouse-Lautrec bar scene–almost concealed by the bartender–which I imagine is someToulouse-Lautrec; bar scene; absinthe kind of dispenser of absinthe. Or the vertical lines in a mirror’s reflection of a woman trying on hats, whose face (in the Degas; millinery; ghost facemirror) is a literal, ghostly blank, also by Degas. I’m drawn by the juxtaposition of complementary colors, and by the texture and brilliance of oils.

When I walk into a room and spy a Cezanne, it’s like realizing an old friend has been invited to the same party; a feeling of reunion arises. The piece is an Alan magnet. Even if I don’t go directly to it, I’m aware of its presence; I feel it calling out to me, like ideology. In the portrait of VictorCezanne; Victor Chocquet; portrait Chocquet, the master’s touch is unmistakable: a face built with blocky, diagonal strokes. I echo art critics ad nauseam when I say that Cezanne’s surfaces are built rather than painted; they have scaffolding.

I left that solitary room of the Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, and Their Times exhibition in full awareness that the majority of the show still lay behind me, unseen. But I didn’t feel as if I’d cheated myself out of anything. My art-loving cup was full. Indeed, one room at a time, for an hour here and there, might be the best way to experience a show of this magnitude. As long as you don’t have to pay admission every time.

the author, Alan D. Tucker
Alan D. Tucker is a novelist, blogger, and essayist.

Paris 1900 at the Frist: a Tangent

A lady of the night, by Toulouse-Lautrec; Paris 1900.
Toulouse-Lautrec nightlife grotesquery.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (On-‘hree duh Too-‘loose Low-‘twhek–say it fast) mastered the grotesquery I so lovingly associate with Parisian nightlife at the turn of the century (the turn of the nineteenth into the twentieth), an era taking center stage right now at the Frist Art Museum in their show, Paris 1900: City of Entertainment. Grotesque–curled and crinkled like gargoyle faces, sneering–not to shame the women involved, but to highlight the excesses of high society men, who could afford to lay out all night, imbibe spumante (while the poor artists imbibed absinthe, and sometimes the not-so-poor, like our dear Henri), and secure the services of singing and dancing courtesans. It really is like in the movie Moulin Rouge–maybe not as polished, or as over-the-top theatrically, as the perfected routines and filmed angles of the movie, but in spirit, a match. I imagine the can-can was quite a spectacle for the booze-buzzing minds of men with no fear of repercussions for lecherous behavior. It is not for me to judge those men, but it is for me to acknowledge that without them, there may not have been a “Belle Epoque,” at least not in the charmed, green-glowing, guiltily pleasurable fashion which art history has handed down to us. And I wouldn’t want a Paris 1900 without Toulouse-Lautrec in it, without the features he painted so fantastically distorted by excess.

I think of the approach of World War I, during which the youth of France would be decimated in a war for which no one was prepared–the first modern war, with long-range artillery and machine guns; trench warfare, with all its dismal living conditions: arms and legs of the dead protruding from the soft mud. I swear I’m not judging those wealthy, lecherous men, on display in so many of the paintings in Paris 1900. What else could well-off men be expected to do? Besides, the war was a good fourteen years away. No one saw it coming–not yet.

Ladies of the night, by Jean Beraud; Paris 1900.
Detail from “Les belles de nuit au Jardin de Paris (The ladies of the night at Le Jardin de Paris),” by Jean Beraud (1905).

Paris 1900 would’ve been a good time to be alive, if you were a man of means in the City of Lights. Maybe, too, if your were a woman of means, though I suspect the same freedoms weren’t afforded you, regardless of social class. Imagine the wives of these men at home. It’s two a.m., the men are out, drifting through Montmartre, brain-blitzed on champagne, and their eyes have begun seeking unfamiliar entertainments. The wives at home are trying to sleep, trying to convince themselves their husbands are only out laughing with friends and have lost track of time, essentially remaining faithful. They suspect otherwise, but they’re not ready to accept it (and they might never be). And they wouldn’t dare threaten their own fragile position by making accusations of infidelity. They’d do it subtly, with guilt and moralistic innuendo. And the men may or may not take the bait, yielding to the hints of their wives, and the damnable situation proves to us, one-hundred-eighteen years later, that the women–even the rich ones–held staggeringly little influence over their well-heeled husbands. I may have this all wrong, but I look at the ghostly profile of a mustachioed man puffing a cigar in Beraud’s painting, and his top hat is more solid than his face, and he’s more-or-less a demon, or if not a demon, then an apparition of debauchery. An apparition in a long coat. And that’s when I feel I’m dead-on about the dynamic at home for these men and their beleaguered wives: lots of things left unsaid. Just as there are lots of things the paintings aren’t saying. But it’s not like we need them to.

**Paris 1900: City of Entertainment is up through January 6 at Nashville’s Frist Art Museum.

Alan D. Tucker Content Writer, Essayist, & Novelist
Alan D. Tucker
Content Blogger,
Essayist, & Novelist