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Orsay through the Eyes of Julian Schnabel

Musée d’Orsay
1 Rue de la Légion d'Honneur
October 10, 2018 – January 13, 2019

Published at Hyperallergic as Brash, Self-flattering, Macho Excess at the Musée d’Orsay


Exhibition partial view © Musée d’Orsay, photo Sophie Crepy Boegly

I happened to have been in the audience the evening Julian Schnabel arrogantly
declared that the closest thing the current art world had to Picasso was himself.
That jokey assertion can be easily tested at the Musée d’Orsay by taking in the
outstanding Picasso Blue and Rose exhibition and then ambling up a floor to see
Schnabel’s conceptually pointless, self-curated Orsay through the Eyes of Julian
Schnabel. The brash, obstreperous, high-macho bombast of Schnabel’s work does
not come close to Picasso’s intelligent, sensitive, and brilliantly bold art.

The juxtaposition of 13 paintings from the museum’s 19th-century collection with

11 Schnabel works from the last 40 years — timed to promote the release of
Schnabel’s film about Vincent van Gogh, At Eternity’s Gate — does nothing to
change my critical evaluation of Schnabel’s frightful paintings as the epitome of
1980s self-flattering macho excess. (He is a much better filmmaker.) Indeed, his
exorbitant exercise in ego had me pitying the mannerist, bulldozing, Neo-
Expressionist artist. Does his Trump-like blind faith in himself blind him that
badly? (Also, Orsay can you see?) His work, long contemptuous of the prevailing
pieties of “good taste,” looks terrible in this context. He really wants us to compare
such pretentious and poorly painted twaddle as “Portrait of Tatiana Lisovskaia as
the Duquesa de Alba II” (2014) to Henri Fantin-Latour’s delicately refined
“Chrysanthèmes in a Vase” (1873)?

Julian Schnabel, “Portrait of Tatiana Lisovskaia as the Duquesa de Alba II” (2014) Oil, gesso, resin on canvas, 335,5 x 243,8
cm, private collection © ADAGP, Paris 2018 © Droits réservés

Henri Fantin-Latour, “Chrysanthèmes in a Vase” (1873) oil on canvas, 62,7 x 54 cm Paris, musée d’Orsay, RF 2000 16
Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Michel Urtado
Schnabel must be a glutton for punishment for accepting the Musée d’Orsay’s
invitation to choose paintings from its collection to exhibit them alongside his
own. Paul Gauguin, Honoré Daumier, Gustave Courbet, Théodule Ribot,
Claude Monet, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent van Gogh and Paul
Cézanne, even though smaller in scale, all outdo Schnabel’s flabby, ham-fisted,
white elephants — hands down. Even Schnabel’s rather exceptional elegant
painting on black velours “Ornamental Despair (Painting for Ian Curtis)” (1980),
on loan from the Bischofberger Collection, is aesthetically shredded in this
superior company.

The reception for Schnabel’s clunky, proto-hipster, fake-outsider art paintings

was greased by Marcia Tucker’s “Bad” Painting movement. But it takes more
than an outrageous act of social amnesia to turn deliberate “bad painting” into
good painting by merely re-contextualizing it next to good paintings. Bombastic
hype does not conquer all, even for a media superstar.

Furthermore, there is something corny, boring, and dull about Orsay

through the Eyes of Julian Schnabel because it is too self-involved to even play the coy
(and tired) game of fake-crushing the “high art/popular culture” divide and I have
an anathema for that anyway. The work’s forced “high art” context does not
create an estrangement or distancing effect that might draw us into an attitude of
new appreciation. There is no defamiliarization going on here that might offer
other critical judgments besides regarding his screwball paintings as a form of
anti-intellectualism. Worse, Schnabel’s shameless self-presentation of his gross
gargantuan canvases within this refined European “high art” context may seem
an example of classic ugly Americanism, here performed as ill proportioned
psychic dominance.
Julian Schnabel, “Blue Nude with Sword” (1979) and Cézanne, “La Femme étranglée” (The Strangled Woman,
1876) photo Sophie Crepy Boegly

Paul Cézanne “La Femme étranglée” (The Strangled Woman, 1876) oil on canvas, 31,2 x 24,7 cm Paris, musée
d’Orsay © Musée d’Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

The show starts with some of Schnabel’s earliest works, including the large-scale
signature plate painting “Blue Nude with Sword” (1979) (painted on broken
crockery) that he hung next to Cézanne’s much smaller and much better painting
“The Strangled Woman” (1876). This painting by Cézanne greatly impressed me
when I saw it in the Sade: Attacking the Sun show, also at Musée d’Orsay a few years
ago. Besides a somewhat similar palette, these two very different depictions of
aggressive male behavior have little to do with each other and Schnabel’s piece
ends up looking exceedingly crude next to Cézanne’s. On the other hand, I would
certainly have enjoyed seeing “Blue Nude with Sword” hung in the Park Güell in
Barcelona, since it was somewhat inspired by Antoni Gaudí’s marvelous mosaic

Another woeful pairing for no discernable reason other than their parity in scale
places one of Schnabel’s better tacky, figurative combine-paintings “The Exile”
(1980) (a typical Neo-Expressionist aggressive gesture with jutting moose antlers)
with the psychologically superior Cézanne painting of his fellow artist “Achille
Emperaire” (1868). In it Cézanne emphasizes Emperaire’s fragile and deformed
body. I last viewed this painting in the Portraits by Cézanne Musée d’Orsay show
last year where I found it as oddly touching as an Ian Dury album.

Julian Schnabel, “The Exile” (1980) Mixed media on wood, antlers, 228,6 x 304,8 cm Courtesy Galerie Bruno
Bichofberger, Männerdorf-Zurich, Switzerland © ADAGP, Paris 2018 © Droits réservés
Paul Cézanne, “Achille Emperaire” (1868) oil on canvas, 201 x 121 cm Paris, musée d’Orsay, RF 1964 38
Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

As I navigated the immense front room containing most of the show, the same
disappointment occurs over and over, with the most ludicrous example being
Schnabel’s pairing of his ugly “Tina in a Matador Hat” (1987) painting with
Vincent van Gogh’s divine “Self-portrait, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence” (1889). This
decision exemplifies the great MoMA curator Kurt Varnedoe’s assessment of
Schnabel’s painting output as that of “fake gestures” of “empty grandeur.”

Vincent van Gogh’s “Self-portrait, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence” (1889) and Julian Schnabel’s “Tina in a Matador
Hat” (1987), photo Sophie Crepy Boegly
Vincent van Gogh, “Self-portrait, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence” (1889) oil on canvas, 65 x 54,2 cm Paris, musée
d’Orsay, gift of Paul and Marguerite Gachet, RF1949-17 Photo © Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais /
Patrice Schmidt

Julian Schnabel’s “Tina in a Matador Hat” (1987) oil paint on broken plates, 182,9 x 152,4 x 18 cm
Bischofberger Collection, Männedorf-Zurich, Switzerland, Inv. GBB No. 5027 © Julian Schnabel Studio /
Photo by Phillips/Schwab

Schnabel is everybody’s cliché idea of the macho painter in the era of depressed
expectations – larger than life, faux-iconoclastic, and, like Trump, a self-hyping
show man. Though I cast no political aspersions on Schnabel in this terrible
Trumpian time, Orsay through the Eyes of Julian Schnabel opens eyes to what other
scathing critics, such as Robert Hughes, have said about Schnabel’s paintings
during the era of Reagonomics: that he is a poppycock painter, perfect in his
personifying puffy profiteering.

Joseph Nechvatal