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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, August 27, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 35
Modern Woman exhibit not to be missed
Arts & Entertainment
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Modern Woman exhibit not to be missed

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN Contributing Writer

The Modern Woman
Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, B.C.
Through September 6


The Musée d'Orsay of Paris contains some of the most incredible works of art in the world. For the first time, a collection of drawings has been released on loan and has made it to the Vancouver Art Gallery in British Columbia. This exhibition of masterpieces by some of the greatest French artists is focused around drawings, and the interesting subject of women. Entitled The Modern Woman: Drawings by Degas, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and Other Masterpieces from the Musée d'Orsay, Paris, this view into the artists' collective works is not one to be missed.

The mid-1800s saw a change in the world of artistic expression as it was introduced to the technology of photography. This event lead to a transformation in how other artists presented their works, especially drawings and paintings. The creative strokes are more delicate, with the implications of light as a way to depict time passing, age, or even mood. Sketches made were presented as finished works of art instead of models for larger pieces. After Claude Monet's painting Impression, Sunrise made its debut in 1872, the critic Louis Leroy coined the phrase "Impressionism" as a satirical comment, and a new movement of art was born.

Impressionist ideals shifted from detailed works of landscapes and large accomplishments to small intimate drawings of a more personal nature - almost captured moments. Classic forms of mythology and serene, floral still life morphed into the figures of the times, including the new emerging modern woman. Often with anonymous subjects, some of the great masters of art (Seurat, Pissarro, Morisot) began to create a history of common, everyday lives of women. These figures were also shocking because they weren't well-known figures or commissioning patrons, but glimpses into types of an ordinary, everyday subject, sometimes of the lower classes and very often represented in the nude.

The women in these drawings are unaware they are being observed or recorded. They are family members falling asleep in chairs or they are women having breakfast, or doing any one of many daily menial tasks. In one work by the infamous Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, there is a drawing of an elderly brothel madam. The details are obtuse and the color in splotches and it's all purposely recorded on the coarsest material of the time, cardboard. But one glance at the figure, which is just raising the edge of her dress, and the viewer can hear a smoke-laden, gravel-toned voice asking what services are requested.

Different sections of the museum categorize the subjects with an easy flowing design. The viewers are naturally led from drawings of the emerging independent (for the late 1800s) woman into the domestic home life of the everyday. The section on nudes reveals the simple feminine routines of bathing or brushing out hair. This transforms into the more intimate. Here nude women are drawn with watercolors, chalks, or pencils in various forms. They are giving only sensual glimpses into worlds that men can never venture near.

Later sections capture the female in various social positions. One in particular (Georges Seurat: The Black Bow c. 1882) is completely done in black charcoal/pencil and is drawn on paper. This simple figure has her back to the viewer, but the play of light with the contrast of the solidarity of black, looks as if the figure emerges from the darkness with self-illumination.

Perhaps two of the most significant pieces are by Edgar Degas: The End of the Arabesque (c. 1876) and A Café on Boulevard de Montmartre (c. 1877). In the latter, four women (most likely prostitutes) are conversing in a café. These four sit and discuss the moment as life bustles around them. A shadow of a male figure is disappearing behind a column and the viewer just knows that this is related to the disgruntled expression (and the subtle but telling gesture) of one of the women at the table. The frame seems to cut off the action that is flowing off the canvas, presenting the illusion of a candid snapshot, done in pastels, that captures a moment: an unimportant and yet extremely relevant moment in these women's lives.

The Modern Woman exhibit was put together specifically for the Vancouver Art Gallery. The majorities of these paintings are usually not on display at the Musée d'Orsay and are usually kept in storage either there or at the Louvre. A doable day trip or an overnight escape to Vancouver allows the perfect opportunity to view these masterpieces, which will not be on display long. This collection holds a delicate view of a powerfully subtle emerging subject: the modern woman of the 1800s. For more information, please contact www.vanartgallery.bc.ca.

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