Imagine … imagine being invited by the Musée d’Orsay to interpret its magnificent collection while also including your own artwork in an exhibition of your making. Remarquable! Imagine being the first contemporary artist invited. Quelle distinction! Imagine that you are Julian Schnabel who has been so honored. Quel spectacle!
While not quite carte blanche – certain key works in this tourist destination were restricted – Schnabel nonetheless was given free rein to the museum’s holdings (French painting and sculpture between 1848 and 1914) to compose his point of view. Orsay Through the Eyes of Julian Schnabel, his selection was called. Orsay vu par Julian Schnabel, the French title somewhat differently says. For it is a matter of the eyes that look out: of those eyes that survey a collection and the eyes that peer from any portrait painting. The result is both picture and portrait – a picture of the collection and a portrait of the artist. It turns out that Schnabel’s point of view on the collection is his point of view on himself: a self-portrait, therefore. And what Schnabel exposes of himself in this self-portrait is really the exhibition’s subject.
It’s been over thirty years since Schnabel last exhibited in Paris, at the height of the hype and hysteria of “the return to painting.” He ruled the artworld along with his po-mo painting compère David Salle, the two paired in their marketability, reprising Rauschenberg and Johns and a century before them, why not, the market failures Van Gogh and Gauguin. Curiously, that exhibition at the Pompidou in early 1987 was concurrent with the opening of the Musée d’Orsay a month before – more mutual cultural restoration than coincidence, one might say. Schnabel was then a contested figure, “controversial,” the Pompidou press release called him. Now he is respected. But in retrospect, the Pompidou exhibition turned out to be his apogee of attention as a painter. He would become famous again, a decade later, as a filmmaker. And though he is currently undergoing something of a revival for his painting, it is his filmmaker’s fame that has opened the Musée d’Orsay’s vaults. The exhibition has been staged to coincide with the premiere of Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate, his film on Van Gogh – which Schnabel insists is no biopic because, actually, Van Gogh, c’est moi, Schnabel might as well have said. (The film was supposedly sparked by a visit by Schnabel and his co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière took, in 2014, to the Musée d’Orsay exhibition Van Gogh / Artaud: The Man Suicided by Society.)
Schnabel has chosen neither of the hanging arrangements available from the period – Salon stacking or Impressionism’s innovative horizontal rows – in favor of a conversation constellated on the gallery’s large arched walls. Perhaps, he, or his collaborator (his current partner, the Swedish interior designer Louise Kugelberg) took inspiration from the display of fans in the background of Manet’s 1873 Lady with Fans (Portrait of Nina de Callias), arrayed like so many broken plates avant la lettre. It is exactly these early works, Schnabel’s plate and encaustic paintings, that look so time-stamped here. For it is not so much that Schnabel chose to show his own works, as the historical affiliations he seeks for them. For “time-stamped” has none of the qualities of endurance Schnabel obsessively yearns for.
The exhibition opens and closes with Van Gogh’s 1889 Self-Portrait and passes by way of his contemporary luminaries Gauguin, Monet, Manet, and Cézanne, amongst others. It was the latter who said he wanted to make of Impressionism “something solid and enduring, like the art in museums.” And it is ironical that Schnabel in turn wants access, there, through something that is broken: his plate paintings. He juxtaposes his 1987 Tina in a Matador Hat to Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait as if his fractured surface is the same as Van Gogh’s broken tones, and his insight into his sitter equal to his predecessor. None of Cézanne’s “solid” paintings are on display here, rather his crude early work, his Strangled Woman and portrait Achille Emperaire, which sit at the same table with Schnabel’s first figurative plate painting, Blue Nude with Sword. Perhaps Schnabel identified with the pun on “emperor” in Cézanne’s painted inscription “Achille Emperaire Peintre,” or simply felt empathetic to Cézanne’s homage to a failed artist at a time when Cézanne himself was showing no promise. On the other hand, Strangled Woman introduces the subdued themes of violence and madness carried forward by Daumier’s dark 1858 The Thieves and the Donkey and Théodule Ribot’s 1870 fallen and beaten The Good Samaritan – not to mention Schnabel’s own 1981 Artaud (Starting to Sing Part 3). Madness can never be far from the surface in an exhibition circulating around the figure of Van Gogh, and anchored by that other madman, Antonin Artaud, whose text, “Van Gogh, the Man Suicided by Society,” underlay the interpretative framework of the museum’s recent 2014 exhibition.
The second gallery allocated to the exhibition is not as accommodating as the first, being somewhat of a passageway into which Schnabel has squeezed his largest paintings and two sculptures, as well as a sketchy, large raw canvas by Toulouse Lautrec. After all, the Musée d’Orsay is a museum of painting and sculpture. Schnabel shows his hand, too. Bursting with ambition, intemperate even, the outsize canvases press at the limits of the space, obviously unwelcome in the inner sanctum of the main display. Nonetheless, this annex is perhaps the brain center of the exhibition, the outside-of-the-inside offering another point of view on the display, however unconsciously. Schnabel reserves his outsized Artaud for this space and his even more gigantic 1988 Horserats, which rival the Salon Grandes Machines elsewhere in the museum. The two sculptures meanwhile are the only works Schnabel fails to comment on in the catalogue, which, incidentally, inverts their titles, perhaps a telling typographic Freudian slip. The bronze sculpture bust of his father, made the year of his death, is now misidentified as Freud and the phallic turd of a rough bronze casket overwritten in white paint with the letters F-R-E-U-D is now incorrectly titled My Father’s Head! Both rest monumentally within one of the museum’s oversized steel and glass vitrines, à la Beuys, one thinks. While they remain unspoken, they are telling. Too telling and too immodest, perhaps, for a more central inclusion.
The man who could say, “I’m the closest thing to Picasso that you’ll see in this fucking life,” is neither measured nor modest. But how do you measure the immeasurable? That is the sublime, or ridiculous, question here. For a painter who converses with the ages, a half-century of French art is surely a limitation. Schnabel can speak to Velázquez and Goya, the references of a couple of his full-length portraits, for instance, only through the relay of Manet. And since there is no longer a contemporary artist to measure himself against, Schnabel must heroically continue his conversation with the dead. He has said that “artists always speak to each other beyond the grave.” He also admits that the D’Orsay exhibition is “a letter that is written from one painter to the next,” an extended allegory that we read on the gallery’s walls. What could previously be contained in one painting – Courbet’s The Painter’s Studio, for instance, a few galleries adjacent – now needs a museum for its expansive vision. Everyone knows, however, that where one ends in the analogous whispering Telephone Game is not where one started; the surprise is the ridiculousness of the sum of the distortions. Schnabel is both sender and receiver.
I have to admit, in spite of what I write, that I actually like Julian Schnabel: his bravura, bombast, and self-aggrandizement, his epic reach and heroism. Yes, precisely those Picasso qualities! What interests me about this exhibition is its contradictions, its impossible demands, but also its sympathies. Obviously, Schnabel has had a long dialogue throughout his career with his fellow plein air painter Van Gogh, and he ends his D’Orsay installation full circle with Rose Painting (Near Van Gogh’s Grave), XVII from 2017 – a plate painting marking a visit to Van Gogh’s grave. Ornamental Despair (Painting for Ian Curtis), a title both precise and ridiculous, is another in this genre – an homage from the graveside. Schnabel has frequently painted tombs, so to speak, on days of friends’ deaths; Jean-Michel Basquiat and Cy Twombly come to mind. The affect of his paintings often derives from this commemorative solidarity. A painting is a graveside; and a tomb, after all, is a sign of eternity’s gate.
This commemorative tendency is remarkably à propos to the France of the D’Orsay’s timeframe: think of those painterly homages to dead artists (Fantin-Latour’s Homage to Delacroix) or the written tombs to passed-away authors (Mallarmé’s poem “Le Tombeau d’ Edgar Poe”). What Schnabel himself offers as homages, he seeks analogously in this impossible colloquy of painters he gathers around his own work. For in the end, empathy can only be secured on endurance, on an art that lasts in museums … and on the need for others to render homage in the way he does, here – in homage to himself, that is.