by David Williams
“There is no reason why the camel of great art should pass through the needle of mob intelligence.” – Rebecca West
It didn’t occur to me for some years that one reason I have traveled to Mexico and Western Europe for almost five decades was to escape the blandness and sterility of American life. That does’t mean that one can’t escape those things by staying home. My attempt at escape actually began at home, in 1973, when, at the age of twenty-two, I went to my first art exhibit. It was sort of a fluke, really. I was sharing a drab, cheap rent house on the north side of Fort Worth with a friend. We both worked for the same small company; my job was dull, repetitive and a good reason to return to college as a more serious student. My roommate and I both read the Fort Worth newspaper in the evenings after work, and it is probably there that we learned of this art exhibition at the Kimbell Museum. It was a Russian collection of impressionist and post-impresssionist paintings, a small but stunning group of forty-two paintings displayed for less than a month at the end of the summer.
Not long ago I contacted the Kimbell through their website to ask about the exhibition. So many years had passed, and many of the details of that 1973 visit eluded me. Katherine Stephens, a curatorial assistant at the Kimbell, answered my email and filled in some of the missing parts. The paintings came from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. The exhibition traveled to five major U.S. museums and featured works by Braque, Cezanne, Andre Deraine, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Fernand Leger, Matisse, Monet, Picasso, Camille Pissarro, Renoir, Henri Rousseau, Alfred Sisley and Maurice de Vlaminck.
I learned something else from Ms. Stephens that was, in its own way, particularly gratifying. This exhibition was the first loan exhibition for the Kimbell, which had only opened to the public the year before, in 1972. It was an auspicious start for a small museum and has been followed by scores of other loan exhibitions.
The paintings affected me in a way that’s hard to describe. For one thing, having grown up in a small town sixty miles west of Fort Worth, I knew virtually nothing about art or artists. Honestly, I don’t know that I had ever seen an original painting. People in my family and community did not have the interest or resources to make art. My parents were working hard and, although they did not realize it at the time, struggling to rise into the growing middle class. Even the few people around us with money–usually large landowners–had no apparent interest in art. It was a different time, our world was culturally closed.
Labourage nivernais by Rosa Bonheur (1849)
One aspect of the paintings that I liked was the rich, yet not overdone use of color. I also liked the subject matter of impressionism and post-impressionism: landscapes, farm scenes and workers, fruit trees and orchards, still lifes of flowers and fruit, portraits of people who might be your neighbor or friend. I don’t remember much about the individual paintings I saw that day at the Kimbell, but I do remember the beauty that had been so finely rendered on canvas.
Labourage nivernais – Detail
Today, in 2019, I look back at more than forty years of travel. In those years many of my travels took me to art museums in Europe, some to major museums in New York, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco. I have also seen a lot of art in Mexico. The last four years, in December, I’ve spent forty days in Paris, an amazing city and arguably the pinnacle of urban life and culture in the West.
The amount of art in Paris, in the permanent collections and the temporary exhibitions, seems almost infinite. There are also many gorgeous churches to visit, and of course the marvelous Gothic masterpiece, Notre Dame. On my last trip in December 2018, I went inside the cathedral, only the second time that I had entered, the first being over forty years ago, in 1976. I have walked past this Parisian landmark–the heart of the city–many times, but the recent fire, which caused extensive damage to the roof, will likely close it to the public for years, so I was doubly glad that I went in. The interior of the popular cathedral is just as sublime as the exterior.
Notre Dame Interior (2)
In addition to the churches and cathedral, Paris also offers other unique architectural works: the Eiffel Tower; the strange, Frank Gehry-designed Luis Vuitton Foundation; the strikingly odd Georges Pompidou Center. (Coincidentally, Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano designed the Pompidou complex; Piano also designed the Kimbell’s most recent addition, the Renzo Piano Pavilion).
The Orsay Museum
Most art lovers know of the Louvre and probably the Orsay Museum, too, but what surprised me when I began to look online and in Paris guidebooks was the generous number of small museums: the Rodin, the Marmottan Monet on the west side of town, the Orangerie, the Picasso in the old Jewish Quarter (the Marais); two small sculpture museums, the Zadkine and the Bourdelle. And there are more than the few I have listed.
Most of the art museums in Paris have permanent collections, some so large that the art is rotated periodically. There are also temporary exhibitions all over the city. Last year, for example, Rose et Bleu, featuring some of Picasso’s early works, opened at the Orsay. Two venues without permanent collections, the Grand Palais and the Luis Vuitton Foundation, always seem to have temporary exhibitions. Last year for the second time I visited the Quai Branly Museum, which houses a permanent collection of indigenous art from around the world, where I found a special exhibition titled “The Art of Bamboo in Japan,” which included beautifully intricate, sometimes abstract, weavings of bamboo.
From the Art of Bamboo Exhibition
“I dream of painting and then paint my dream.” Vincent Van Gogh
To get out of the city for part of a day on my last visit, I took a short train ride out to Auvers sur Oise. For years I’ve wanted to see this small town northwest of Paris where Van Gogh lived briefly and painted his last canvases, and where he died. He is buried there, next to his brother, Theo, against the north wall of the cemetery, ivy covering the graves, and two small, simple headstones: Ici repose Vincent Van Gogh, 1853-1890, and a similar one for Theo. The cemetery is just outside the town proper, and if you go you will want to see the nearby church at the edge of town, the painting of which is in the small Van Gogh collection in the Orsay.
Van Gogh Gravesite
Walking from the church to the cemetery, one immediately comes upon fields, rising slightly, leveling out near the cemetery. The lay of the land reminds me of the painting, “Crows Over a Wheatfield,” considered one of the last the artist painted, now one of the works in Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum.
Van Gogh’s Chapel
I went to Auvers on a Monday, the small museum there, in Dr. Gachet’s house, closed, the cafes and restaurants closed, the town quiet. I stayed only a few hours and caught my train back to the city, where I took the metro out to the west side to the Luis Vuitton Foundation, located in the edge of the Bois de Boulogne. That evening I saw the temporary installation of works by Jean- Michel Basquiat and Egon Schiele.
It pleases and amuses me that my travels of almost fifty years, which have taken me to many fine museums, started at the Kimbell in Fort Worth.That first exhibition of impressionism and post-impressionism in 1973 opened a door in my small provincial life. A lot has changed since then. For one thing, it is not necessary to travel very far to see great art if you live in north central Texas as I do. Just in Fort Worth alone, three museums–the Modern, the Amon Carter and the Kimbell–clustered together in the arts district, all within walking distance of each other, offer permanent and temporary exhibitions of fine arts to the public. Thirty miles away, Dallas has its own complex of museums.
A sense of urgency marks my travel these days. In my late sixties, I see the time coming when my travels will end. I walk a lot in these great cities and towns I visit–often five miles in a day, sometimes as much as ten–on hard surfaces–stone, asphalt and concrete. I’ve told family and friends that I don’t intend to be one of these oldsters, gimping around the streets of Paris or San Miguel. When the day comes I’ll be content to stay home–a good place after all–and, as Greg Brown says, “fiddle with my memories.” It’s enough.