The Grand Palais is outdoing itself this spring with retrospectives of two major artists -- who couldn't be more different. The first is of 17th century Spanish master Velazquez, who gently pushed the boundaries of portraiture in his time. The other is 20th century designer Jean-Paul Gaultier, who exploded any and all fashion boundaries in his.
It is hard to believe, but this is the first exhibit on Velazquez ever in France. This has less to do with his reputation as an artist (which has always been major) but the difficulty in convincing museums and collectors to lend their paintings. So this really is a special opportunity that might not be repeated anytime soon.
Velazquez is one of those rare painters who was well-known and respected in his lifetime. He was ambitious from the get-go, setting his sights on being the King's official painter, which he achieved at the age of 24. As a result, much of his output consists of royal portraits, which make up the bulk of the exhibit. Unfortunately, my kids were less than impressed with the subtle ways he played with lighting and composition in his depictions of the Spanish king and his offspring. I guess there's only so many pictures of princesses posing next to dwarves that they can take (yes, this was apparently a Thing in the 17th century).
But if you take the time to look closely, you can appreciate the way he was able to experiment within the constraints of official portraiture. His travels in Italy exposed him to the latest advances in landscape, perspective and chiaroscuro techniques, and he sought to create a luminosity with his brushwork that hadn't been seen in Spain before.
Velazquez' most famous painting, "Les Ménines," (the one with the Spanish infanta where you can see Velazquez working in the background) is present in the show only in a copy, painted by his protégé and son-in-law, Juan Bautista Martinez del Mazo (quite a fine artist in his own right). Its influence can be seen not only in the work of artists who came immediately after Velazquez, but right through to the pre-impressionists, impressionists and beyond. That said, my favorite paintings in the exhibit were his more mundane tavern scenes, depicting moments of everyday life. "The Forge of Vulcan," while ostensibly a mythological painting, realistically depicts the shocking moment when a man learns his wife is cheating on him.
'Subtle' and 'realistic' are probably the last two adjectives you'd use to describe the work of Jean-Paul Gaultier. For the French designer, more was always more. He appreciated grand spectacle in all its forms - fashion, film, music. This multi-media exhibit details his influences and obsessions through photography, drawings, and most importantly, scores of examples of his designs.
The greatest hits are all here - the striped sailor sweaters, the corsets, the Union Jacks and Eiffel Towers. Gaultier has always loved juxtapositions - masculine vs feminine, nude vs masked, Paris vs London. The exhibit shows that these tensions were present from the very beginning (his first "corset" was a newspaper bra he glued to a teddy bear when he was a child). You can accuse him of being obvious or a consummate self-promoter, but looking at the clothes up close, it is impossible to deny they are works of art. The detail of the beading, appliqué, knitwear and leatherwork are truly astounding and clearly thought out to the last tiny mermaid scale.
I could have done without the "animated" mannequins and their creepy video-projected faces, but otherwise the exhibit is a pure visual delight. After Paris, it is travelling to several other big cities, so if you're not passing through here, you still might get a chance to experience it. For those in Paris, the Grand Palais is also hosting a small exhibit of American art from Fisher collection of the San Francisco MOMA. It mainly consists of minimalist art, which is really not my bag, but there are some nice Calders and Warhols mixed in, too.
So while the skies of Paris have once again turned gray, get yourselves to the Grand Palais (but be sure to reserve in advance). I might actually go back to Gaultier with the kids -- there are some risqué outfits, but they are tastefully displayed and not too shocking for any kid who's seen the advertisements in the metro. While they might someday be grateful that they saw the Velazquez show, I suspect it's Gaultier who will stick with them.