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Taking a Trip to Paris 1900 in Pasadena

August 06, 1986|MIV SCHAAF

"Museums buy any piece of junk."

"That's not junk; that's art," his companion says.

We are just inside the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, waiting near the big Rodin statue.

"Well, the hands are all out of proportion with the rest of it."

"They're supposed to be." She looks up at him, still a bit of hope in her eyes.

"Why? It's supposed to make you think it'll hurt when he hits you with 'em?" Folks, I think this relationship is doomed.

Ah, the professor arrives: Eric Haskell, going to take his Paris 1900 class from Scripps College to see some of the art influences of that era.

About 12 of us, at a near trot, follow him as he walks past the room of 15th-Century wood paintings and triptychs. No detours, though I look longingly in the door.

In the corridor a man traces in the air with a finger the oval shapes of a pair of French paintings--"It goes around, see?"

"Uh huh," his young woman friend answers. Better chance for this relationship than the Rodin couple, I think.

A young man with a Polaroid takes a shot of Guido Cagnacci's huge wall-sized painting, "Martha Rebuking Mary for Her Vanity." He sits down on a center bench waiting for the development--a little disappointed at the bluish 3x5-inch photo print in his hand; not quite the same.

It is impossible to go through rooms to see something else without seeing what is in the rooms, so Alessandro Magnasco's "Interior With Monks" terrifies me again. I must have seen this when I was young, that is a print of it, the whole depressing scene painted in ashy gray with a fire in the center. They were going to burn the dog, I thought then, holding a whip to beat the cowering thing, but I see now it is a line or leash to the dog or even something to eat. It had seemed a picture of purgatory at the time.

But now we are properly assembled in our 1900ish time. We see Manet, Vuillard, Bonnard painting street scenes, going out from their studios to paint the ordinary life of the streets, a daring thing of the time, "the ultimate vulgarization of form," Haskell says, "moving from exact representation to splashes of color, to impressionism, to pointillism to modern abstraction." So neatly and cleverly Haskell jogs our minds along. The more traditional art focused on a person's face, he says, but here we are looking at people looking at other things, even with their backs turned toward us. He points this out with Renoir, Boudin, Morisot and a Pissarro poultry market scene.

"Courbet, like Turner, was controversial in subject"--heck, didn't get all that, I lingered too long at the poultry market. It's just like a geology field trip, as I learned in the mountains of Colorado those long summers ago: to learn everything well you have to be the first one behind the leader; once you fall behind you're going to lose the words. Also, straggling behind, you're more exhausted anyway, the last to collapse onto the ground for rest stops and yet you have to get up as soon as anyone else. It's a very important fact I've found in the field of life: stay up with the leader, be the first behind his coat-tails or you will miss all those precious gems, geological or informational.

The outdoor artists went to Brittany, Haskell says, "Where they were still wearing those little wooden shoes"--well gosh, I saw farm women in Brittany in 1984 still wearing those little wooden shoes and why did he say little, they're clunkers--or, like Henri Rousseau, the French civil service painter, they went to the conservatory to see how the jungle looked, "not like Gauguin, who went to Tahiti." For an instant each one of us, I am sure, sits on white sand, while Tahitian girls weave flowers in our hair.

Courbet was already going to Normandy, Haskell says, where there were no fashionable casinos and only "all those Sierra Club people there." (It really does not much matter what subject Eric Haskell is teaching--I have heard him talk on book illustrations, old French gardens, antique fans--it is always funny and interesting; I have put him on notice to notify me of any lecture engagements he has anywhere anytime.)

We see Monet's paintings of haystacks on the northwest cliffs of Normandy and then are gathered to see the Degas bronzes. See the movement toward abstraction, Haskell points out, "which is where Rodin is going from the beginning." It is the best collection of small Degas pieces in the world, Haskell says, because the foundry man kept a bronze of each piece in his attic in his house, which was sold only 12 years ago--wasn't that a prize to find in an attic! We see his paintings of laundresses, shocking in 1884--"Why is he spending his time doing this?" Haskell imitates Parisians asking. "Lots is left undone" he points out--dancers with little or no indication of background, of where they are, legs not painted in, "less information, more atmosphere."

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