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Splendid, isn't it? Marie Laurencin at Musée Marmottan

(Paris.) "Avec ta robe longue // tu ressemblais a une aquarelle de Marie Laurencin // et je me souviens, je me souviens très bien // de ce que je t'ai dit ce matin-là..."

What is actually more embarrassing: to know these lines from very cheesy, very uncool 1970's French-American singer Joe Dassin or to have never heard Marie Laurencin's name in any other context?

I confess guilty of both. But a retrospective show at Musée Marmottan finally offers the chance to get acquainted with her work.

In the beginning were self-portraits. 1909, an artist in search of the most arrogant expression possible. Follow portraits of friends and artists, Derain, Picasso, Salmon; often cubist in the background, whilst the human shapes are "correctly" outlined. Occasionally heads remind of Amedeo Modigliani with triangular alien faces and hypnotizing, yet lifeless black eyes. One outstanding work is Guillaume Appolinaire in Egyptian style, reflecting the modernist fascination for "primitive" arts.

Clowns and circuses; and Society with a capital "S": ambassadors and (money-)aristocracy; scenes of interiors and some landscapes. Everything is neat, everything is clean; the will to harmony omnipresent. Modern art with soft focus. Marie Laurencin translated the revolutionary uproar of modern art into socially acceptable terms, unimpressed by all new fashions; she stayed true to herself right into the 1940s. Marie Laurencin never was revolutionary, but this she has in common with her fans. A public of people who could very well live in a manor like the Musée Marmottan. She is decorative, but with great technical skills; she never hurt anybody, and has a constant following amongst the rich and beautiful. You cannot reproach her for being harmless, can you?

Nearly all of the works in this exhibition come from Laurencin Museum in Tokyo (indeed, there is a museum dedicated to Marie Laurencin in Tokyo). If one wants to understand this fascination, maybe one should compare her pale faces and devote female figures to the Geisha ideal.

Finally, there are also some watercolors, and even women in long robes; the perfect dress not only for Indian summers.

Apart from this temporary exhibition, Musée Marmottan is always worth a visit, if only to revel in the splendor of a 19th Century Parisian bourgeois manor. Maybe the Musée Jacquemart-André is still a bit more sumptuous, but never mind: You will gaze around open-mouthed in each; some people's home truly is their castle.

And Marmottan has Monet. The museum owns the world's biggest collection of his works, most of them donated by Claude Monet's son Michel in the 1960s, including the one which gave Impressionism its name: Impression, soleil levant (1872).

Impressionism's theoretical foundations, its impact and importance for the early days of modern art set aside, these paintings are accessible for everyone, perfectly suited for a naive approach to art - the approach of ninety percent of museum visitors. Monet is one of art history's most popular characters, not with highbrow academics but with the people. He is one of those artists for whom to appreciate you don't need to know anything about art. People visit the Louvre because they are expected to bring back a photograph of the Mona Lisa when traveling to Paris; elitist art freaks like you and I visit the Palais de Tokyo to utter fancy phrases après, but Impressionism is an example for basic emotional art: If you've got a heart, there is some place for Monet in it. In recreating an impression his paintings evoke the feelings connected with it in "reality". Feeling fed up with a rainy Parisian winter day? - come and meditate over the Branche de Seine, Giverny or a nearly abstract Pont Japonais and travel to a lazy summer morning (if you prefer melancholy winter dreams, go for Sisley instead). A wise man's love for nature.

On Marmottan's upper floor, the WiIdenstein Collection of Medieval miniatures has found a permanent home. Beautiful and more fascinating than Marie Laurencin, today they can be regarded like objects of African art have been a hundred years ago. Cult objects from a culture that is not or no longer ours; that we don't understand any more. Who knows still the names and stories of all those saints; who has even read the (whole) bible? Now, that these religious images are reduced to the status of "primitive" idols, it is the time to rediscover their beauty, their craftsmanship and unfiltered expression, time to feel the mysterious aura of a lost culture.

The visit is over, you check the time on a pendulum clock, take a last look at the Louis Something chairs, the golden chandeliers, the Renoirs and Morisots decorating every wall; and stepping onto the street you wonder where your butler is - Hath he naught brought thy gentle steed yet?

Time to wake up.

Marie Laurencin, Musée Marmottan, 21 February-28 July, 2013



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