“An Important Discovery in a Paris Art Museum”

I turned the Paris art world upside-down yesterday.

(This is a TRUE story.)

It happened in one of Paris’ more elegant art museums, the Musée Jacquemart-André: I made a discovery that was so bold, so daring, so full of insight into the understanding of the modern art world, that…well….

… I am expecting a phone call from Jacques Chirac this morning. I have a feeling he may award me the French Legion of Honor…

that was… before I discovered I put my foot in my mouth.

(this is ALSO a TRUE story…)

The Musée Jacquemart-André sits discreetly off of the busy boulevard Haussmann in the 8th Arrondisement. I had a bit of difficulty locating the place – I passed it twice before I noticed the two large banners announcing the museum and it’s temporary exhibit. On a street full of cafés, travel agents, kitchen design firms, and houseware shops, it is hard to imagine that quietly lurking behind the façade is a classic 19th century residence full of art treasures.

As is typical for hôtel architecture in Paris (traditional mansions for the aristocracy and nobility – not a reference to pay-by-the-night businesses of Marriott or Day’s Inn type), this once private residence sits on a large site complete with courtyard and formal gardens that is closed off from the street by high masonry walls and large double doors. Visiting carriages would enter through these doors (known as the porte cochère ) and pass through a long, covered hallway for dropping off passengers. The large courtyard allows for the carriage to easily turn around.

The wealthy banker, Edouard André, built this ultimate bachelor’s pad for himself during the1860’s. In 1881, he married forty-something Nélie Jacquemart, a portrait painter. Both had a passion for art from the Italian Renaissance and together they amassed quite a collection of paintings, sculpture, tapestries and furniture. They bequeathed everything to the government of France and today the estate is a museum owned and operated by the Institute of France.

An eight Euro ticket price included a multi-lingual audio guide. The museum has a fine, smoke-free café overlooking the courtyard; I glanced at the menu and was tempted by the wonderful smells floating out from the kitchen but instead…

I went straight upstairs to see the special temporary exposition, “de Caillebotte à Picasso: Chefs-d’oevre de la collection Oscar Ghez”. Ghez, who died in 1998, was an industrialist who collected art. In 1968 he founded the Musée du Petit-Palais in Geneva to house his collection. These paintings were from that museum.

Painting #1 was a portrait of Oscar himself, dated 1946. I pushed #1 on my audio guide:

“ This is an extraordinary example of High Renaissance painting from the Florentine School…”

I looked back at Oscar. No way.

I saw that #3 was a Corot landscape; I pushed #3 on my audio guide:

“…notice the inlaid wood and exquisite fabric on this chair…”

Something is wrong here…

I walked over to the guard and asked in French, “This [holding up my audio guide] is not for this exposition?” He gave me a surprised look that you would reserve for any stupid American and said no, it was for the permanent collection of the museum.

The title of the show is a little misleading: I expected to see a who’s-who of late 19th century / early 20th century art. Instead, there was usually no more than one painting from each of a few big names in a group of many lesser-known artists. Still, it was quite an impressive private collection of paintings and the show was definitely worth seeing. I especially liked the two Foujita’s towards the end.

My only other complaint was the lighting. The curator definitely strove for dramatic lighting. The rooms are almost as dark as the Degas pastel room in the Musée d’Orsay. The paintings were spot lit and something was causing them to glow almost as if they were iridescent. It was like being in a room of velvet Elvis paintings with glowing, unnatural colors. Up close, the paintings had what appeared to be bits of glitter sparkling in them. My guess was that either they were heavily retouched or the canvases were heavily varnished and the lighting needed adjusting due to the reflections.

In the last room, I spotted a Soutine. It was one of his strange but interesting butcher paintings – a hanging beef carcass. The strange subject matter often takes a back seat to his energetic expressive style – although you could say that his expressive energy almost emphasizes the strangeness…

I walked up close for a detailed look.

That’s when I saw it !

In the upper right-hand corner of the painting was Soutine’s name painted upside down. Weird, I thought…why would he do such a funny thing as write his name upside down? Then in the middle of the upper part of the frame, a small, engraved, gold plaque read:

Chaim Soutine

The plaque was UPSIDE-DOWN as well !

I couldn’t believe it. I looked around and saw the same guard I had spoken with earlier. I walked over to point this little discovery of mine out to him. He saw me coming and his face read, “Oh shit, not the stupid American again. Is he making passes at me or what?”

I didn’t know how to say ‘upside-down’ in French. I improvised:

“ This is wrong,” I said, as I pointed at the upside-down Soutine.

He looked quite irritated. Is this Brigitte Bardot’s American male counterpart or something? He wants to tell me it is wrong to kill animals? Go back to your imitation turkey tofu burgers in America and leave-me-the-hell alone!

He looked at the painting and then looked at me. I was waiting for a remark. I guess he figured that I hated abstract art and I was vocalizing to him.

He rolled his eyes, shrugged his shoulders and did the French whoopee cushion noise from his puckered lips. This very French, non-verbal gesture said it all: Look Buddy, even though you are American which means you – by birth right – do not have any qualifications to make any judgments whatsoever about art, I may or may not agree with you on this particular piece but we are not the ones who decide this, are we? You are interrupting my busy schedule and if you continue to do so, I will be forced to request to the National Union Of Snotty Art Museum Guards that we go on strike.

“ No, no – the frame is bad,” I clarified – or so I thought…

“ It is the original frame” he answered. So? Le Stupid Americain doesn’t like the frame? Do you really think we will allow tasteless Americans to redecorate the musée?

Now here I was smiling as I was talking to the guard. I was proud of my revelation and thought it was pretty damn humorous. But I suppressed an outright laugh. Even though he was a member of the secret society in Paris (of which most of his fellow Parisians belong) that prohibits smiling more than twice every three years, he was not smiling.

In my limited French, I knew of no other way to express “upside-down” so I resorted to hand gestures. My right hand went in a counter-clockwise motion over my left hand which was moving in a clockwise position. This stupid American ! Now he wants to take me for a drive in his car. He must be one of those psychos from California who kills people and dumps their bodies in the desert! I’ve seen his type in the American movies…

But then, it clicked for him. He looked up at the painting and studied it pensively. He quietly called one of his fellow Snotty Art Museum Guides over and they both looked at the painting as if someone had just passed away. They whispered between each other and made sure that I did not hear what they were talking about. By no means should we show any sign of ignorance towards art in this matter to this stupid American – even though he probably knows nothing at all about art.

I grinned and walked away. They were still whispering to each other.

When I got to the doorway to the next gallery, I turned and looked back; both of them were still looking at the painting while SAMG #1 was whispering into his walkie talkie.

I was sure that the Culture Police were on their way over…

FOOTNOTE: (meaning, “stick footnote in mouth”)

Later that night, I related the story to Vicky and I paused to go find a similar butcher painting in my Soutine book to show her. I found what looked like the exact painting I had seen in the museum. On page 476 of Taschen’s, Soutine Catalogue Raisonné, there was a large reproduction of “le boeuf écorché” (Flayed Beef), 1925, oil on canvas, 72.5 x 49.8 cm (see below) and the word, “Footnote”. I read the small paragraph:

“This painting has often been reproduced with the carcass hanging in such a way that the signature ‘Soutine’ appears in the upper left corner. However, we believe the painting was signed incorrectly, i.e. upside-down, and that the carcass should be seen as it is reproduced here. It is logical to hang a beef carcass from its stronger hind legs and consistent with Soutine’s other paintings of this subject. The painting was first reproduced in 1929 in accordance with our presentation and the current owner, the Kunstmuseum Bern, concurs. The museum displays the painting with the signature in the lower right corner, reading upside-down.”

Now I felt like an idiot. Vicky, you can use the phone now – Chirac will not be calling this morning…

But something was bothering me. The upside-down signature I saw was in the UPPER right corner NOT the LOWER right corner! I looked for my program from the museum – one of those brochures you carry all through an art exhibit without reading; you take it home and it sits on your dresser for a few weeks; you start to toss it but then decide to keep it because you’re going to read it sooner or later.

I read it. There was NO mention of neither upside-down paintings nor upside-down signatures. I found the painting’s title in the brochure:

“ Le Veau écorché”
huile sur toile
81 x 50.5 cm

So not only was it a different title (the one above refers to a calf – not beef), it was painted in 1923 (as opposed to 1925 for my book’s version) – AND – it is a completely different canvas size (the book version is 72.5 x 49.8 cm.)

With this discovery in hand, I conclude one or more of the following:

1. More than two upside-down signature Soutine paintings possibly exist.

2. Soutine obviously liked playing jokes on the public with upside-down signatures that he knowingly signed.

3. Soutine drank too much absinthe and suffered from hallucinations.

4. Soutine had foot and mouth disease (not to be confused with foot IN mouth disease which I have suffered from on occasion.)

5. Soutine enjoyed painting while hanging upside-down from a trapeze in his studio; he often forgot and signed his paintings while he was still on the trapeze.

6. Oscar Ghez’s Soutine is a forgery. I find two or more mistakes of the same kind to be too coincidental.

7. Museum curators and art experts have overstepped their boundaries once again and are trying to re-write art history and/or what the artist originally had in mind – without consulting the artist.

8. While visiting art museums in Paris, Americans should not pay any attention to what appear to be glaring errors in the presentation of works of art; they are SUPPOSED to be like that and unless you want to look like a fool (le imbécile americain), keep your mouth shut.

By the way, the French word for upside-down is “à l’envers

[oh yes…another footnote:] I highly recommend a visit to the Musée
Jacquemart-André. Though the temporary Impressionist show was good, I enjoyed the permanent collection of the museum much more. There are beautiful Tiepolo frescoes on the ceiling, 18th century tapestries and furniture, paintings by Canaleno, Rembrandt, Botticelli, Donatello, Mantegna, Uccello, Van Dyck, Hals, Boucher, Fragonard and David. I especially liked the Italian Renaissance paintings and Uccello’s “St. George and the Dragon” – one of the more celebrated works in the overall collection. The temporary exhibits change frequently. The museum gives you an idea of how 19th century “good living” was and if you have the bucks (Euros), you can rent out the museum for your next Christmas party. As I mentioned earlier, the museum’s restaurant looked like a good spot for lunch – and you can gaze at one of Tiepolo’s frescoes while you dine.

“le Boeuf écorché”, by Chaim Soutine

About this entry