Just under the wire, I caught another fine exhibit at the Grand Palais called "Bohèmes." Gathering together over 200 works from the 17th to the 19th centuries exploring the identity of the "Bohemian", it's a fascinating show both on the artistic and thematic levels.
The first part of the show located on the ground floor covers a lot of historical material about the Bohemians' (or Gypsies, or Tziganes, as they're also known) spread across Europe. The exhibit proceeds chronologically and is very well commented, tracing how the Gypsies' exoticism, nomadic life and penchant for music and dance quickly made them choice subjects in drawings, painting and sculptures.
Early works tended to split the Gypsy identity into two parts, portraying either the virginal, angelic woman, or the corrupt seductress. The show includes several paintings of the Virgin Mary dressed in Gypsy garb, as well as paintings of the Gypsy fortune teller out to fleece the rich. Towards the 18th century, the Gypsy became more of a romantic figure. The fortune teller was the harbinger of love and the artistic, free-spirited Gypsy woman became a popular figure in books and the theater.
In the 19th century, paintings focused on the Gypsy as dancers and musicians, living apart from urban society, in touch with nature. Landscapes depicting Gypsy encampments in France became popular with some artists, while others depicted the hard scrabble life of Gypsies in Spain. A small portion of the downstairs section is devoted to the Gypsy influence in music (Liszt's use of hungarian folk themes, Bizet's "Carmen") and in an unusual touch, Tzigane music is piped in throughout the ground floor space.
Throughout the 19th century, marginalized artists empathized with the Gypsy-as-outcast image and eventually appropriated the word "Bohemian" to describe their artistically rich, but poverty-stricken lifestyles. The center of the Bohemian movement was in Montmartre and the upstairs section of the exhibit is devoted to artists' depictions of their own run-down studios as well as the cafés and cabarets they frequented.
Works by Degas, Picasso and Toulouse-Lautrec are on display in this section, as well as poems by Rimbaud and Verlaine, and a couple of the rooms are done up to resemble an artist's garret or a café. There was an definite emphasis at that time on the melancholy side of the artist's existence so that the word Bohemian eventually became associated with the starving, misunderstood, self-destructive artist (see the opera, "La Bohème).
Despite this bleakness, the Gypsy as subject and theme remained popular until Hitler declared it a prime example of "degenerate art" and started deporting and killing gypsies en masse. Somehow, this cooled the appetite for paintings and plays about exotic Esmereldas.
I tend to like thematic exhibits as they can be a great way to discover new artists or see little-known works by familiar artists. The stand-outs for me here were a couple of portraits by Courbet and the Montmartre section. I also loved learning about Callot, a 17th century printmaker who actually ran away from home and joined a band of gypsies.
This exhibit is closing in Paris, but may be moving on to a town near you. In the meantime, I will be waiting to see what takes its place at the Grand Palais.