I went to the new art exhibition at Lyon’s Musée des beaux-arts last weekend, on its first day of opening (by chance rather than through planning). Called ‘Picasso, Matisse, Dubuffet, Bacon… Les modernes s’exposent au musée des Beaux-Arts’ it is a chronologically organised history of modern painting and art objects, arranged in two dozen or so rooms.
The gallery itself is a beautiful space, full of clean and well-organised rooms with the work displayed well. Its floors don’t creak. It has lots of benches for sitting on and pondering. It has a cafe. What’s more, it has its fair share of the old masters and some fascinating ancient work, too. I was in love with the world when I wandered around – the city, the new experiences, the atmosphere on the streets, the food – had me besotted. Coupled with the fact that I’m no professional art critic, this could be an exuberant review.
But it’s hardly an exuberant exhibition – and is all the better for it.
Rather, it’s actually quite conservative in my estimate. On the whole, it’s a history of painting arranged chronologically and thematically. Artistic periods are linked with the era in which they appeared, or to which they referred. So, we have the ‘return to order’ grouping following World War II. In this room, history represents upheaval, to which the artists reacted by returning to order. Five or six paintings (and sometimes other art objects) represent this deliberately simplified approach.
The overall effect is to create an excellent historical primer, in which it makes it simpler to contextualise artists and their relationship with their wider world, to create connections, begin to make sense of those many movements, artworks, periods. It is as good as any art historical book I’ve read, and you do feel a sense of development both artistically and historically as you walk round.
Art as a mirrored reflection of society and its history is of course a very simplistic relationship and it’s one that is interrogated as the exhibition moves towards its final stages. In the final works of post-modernism, those very notions of a stable art, history and what they mean in relation are discussed in the artworks and the commentary that accompanies them. If you’re in Lyon – and why wouldn’t you be? – I’d highly recommend it.