Collage Talks: Tony Magnusson, Curator of European and North American Art, and Colours of Impressionism

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Installation view Colours of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2018

Natalie Carfora: Why Impressionism? Why Musée d’Orsay? Was this an exhibition and a period that you have been looking to explore here at the gallery for some time? How did it generally come about?

Tony Magnusson: Okay, so, I am sort of answering this question on behalf of our recently departed director Nick [Mitzevich], who worked with the Musée d’Orsay and also with the Federal Government Agency Art Exhibitions Australia to bring this to Adelaide, so it’s been four years in planning. Art Exhibitions Australia is a Federal Government Agency charged with partnering Australian museums and galleries with overseas institutions. The idea is bringing these kinds of great international blockbusters to these kinds of institutions. Crucially, Art Exhibitions Australia can access the Federal Government’s Insurance Indemnity Scheme, which is absolutely vital and essential for an exhibition of this calibre.

NC: Oh yeah, I can imagine.

TM: So yeah, Nick worked really closely with the Museum and with Art Exhibitions to bring this exhibition to Adelaide, and in doing that they would have workshopped various themes and then Paul [Perrin] and Marine [Kisiel] then went to work and came up with this great new concept, a fresh new way of telling what is a familiar story for many Australian audiences. Really the egis, or the genesis, was our wonderful Camille Pissarro work, Prairie à Éragny, from 1886, which we were able to acquire in 2014 thanks to the generous benefaction of 384 people, or something like that. That got such an amazing response, this is before I was here, in terms of visitors coming to see just that one painting that Nick thought, Well maybe we should build an Impressionist exhibition, not around that painting, but maybe there’s hunger for an Impressionist show if there’s so much interest in just one work.

NC: That was actually going to be my next question, it seemed too good to be true that you acquired that just a couple of years ago and then have the Impressionist exhibition. It’s really great that you were able to show that in the exhibition as well.

TM: Nick used it as a barometer I think to sort of gauge how popular Impressionist painting, 19th century French painting, is with Adelaide audiences. Not least because it’s a really good example of Pissarro’s practice and that particular work shows him on the threshold of embracing Neo-Impressionism, but also it’s a really interesting work to look at in his career, because it’s right at this point where he’d been doing the Impressionist thing for decades and then he got with the new young kids who were like, yeah we’ve got the new sort of style of painting down pat, we’re doing this better than you guys, we’ve got a more scientific, analytical, rigorous approach to the rigorous depiction of colour and line and getting that out on canvas. I am talking about Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, people like that, and Pissarro really threw in his lot with them. Even though he was quite old, he was born in 1830, so he would have been in his mid-50s, you can teach an old dog new tricks, and he really wholeheartedly embraced Divisionism, as they called it themselves, and it later became known as Neo-Impressionism…

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Camille Pissarro, France, 1830-1903, Tour-du-Jongleur Lane and M.Musy’s house, Louveciennes, c. 1872, oil on canvas, 52 x 81 cm, Bequest of Enriqueta Alsop on behalf of Eduardo Mollard, 1972, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France, photo: © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay)/René-Gabriel Ojéda

NC: I am really interested in the process behind actually hosting Colours of Impressionism. So it was curated by the Musée d’Orsay, and you said it was curated just for us? It hasn’t travelled anywhere else?

TM: It went to Singapore first, but it is definitely Adelaide exclusive. I saw it in Singapore and it might as well have been a different show, because it’s amazing… It had almost the same checklist, we added a three paintings to the show, our Pissarro, our Renoir, and one of our Fantin-Latour, and also three of our Japanese woodblock prints. But the show in Singapore, it was just a very different environment. It was in a temporary exhibition space with artificial light and low ceilings. This is just a very different way of experiencing these works, we would say it’s a better way, because it’s giving the works space to breathe, you’re able to view them in natural light, and this was after all a movement that was all about the depiction of natural light, and of course augmented by spotlights, especially when we are open in the evenings. It’s really nice to see these works in a period appropriate setting, because of course the Elder Wing was designed in the late 19th century and opened in 1900, the same year as the building that now houses the Musée d’Orsay. These works are mid-late 19th century works, so it’s lovely to see them in that sort of environment.

NC: Did you get any input into what they put together, or did they just put it together and send it as a package?

TM: No no, Nick and Carol [Henry, Chief Executive of Art Exhibitions Australia] worked very closely with the Musée d’Orsay at a very high level to come up with a checklist that was compelling, that was representative of each of the artists and really showed them in the best light, that also presents the story of Neo-Impressionism within the context of the show, and also really importantly sets the scene and shows us what the antecedents of Impressionism were and how these artists came to do what they did. They didn’t just wake up one morning and go, we’re going to attend to the empirical depiction of colour and light through broken brush work and pure pigments. They were standing on the shoulders of giants, they were giants themselves, but they were looking to an older generation of artists who did things slightly differently. I’m talking of an earlier generation of landscape painters like Daubigny and Boudin, who was Monet’s first mentor, and got him interested in landscapes, because before meeting Boudin [Monet] was just a caricaturist, he did cartoons. And then in the last room you can see where Fauvism, Cubism, and 20th century art movements take off with the example of late Monet, Cézanne, and Renoir.

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Paul Signac, France, 1863-1935, The red buoy, 1895, oil on canvas, 81.2 x 65 cm, Gift of Pierre Hébert, 1957, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France, photo: © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski

NC: How was it when the art actually arrived? It would have been really different loaning from such a big institution. Was the process with the install different to previous collaborations with other museums?

TM: Not really, because we’ve worked with Tate and other galleries. The works were coming from Singapore and, of course, like the Royal family they never all travel together. To spread the risk they come in a number of aeroplanes, and not all to Adelaide, some came to Melbourne and were freighted by road. We worked with the two curators and the Head of International Exhibitions who also came over, one of the registrars, and it was a well oiled install procedure, it was seamless. We’d already worked out prior where things were going to go and even though there was a little bit of push and pull, when we got all the works in the space, the curators were thinking on the go. We sort of agreed to an in principle hang with the design plan, but once they got into the space they really responded to the particularities of the spatial environment and thought on their feet. It was very collaborative and collegial. We hung the exhibition in four days. It didn’t take long.

NC: It was really good that you were able to include some of the AGSA collection in the exhibition, but you have such a strong collection of Australian Impressionist artworks, was this something you considered including in the exhibition or you just didn’t consider it because it was only Musee d’Orsay work?

TM: Well we included the Tracey Lock [Curator of Australian Paintings & Sculpture] and Elle Freak [Associate Curator of Australian Paintings, Sculpture and Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art] work on a fabulous display in Gallery 14 of the Melrose Wing which you could almost see as a bit of a companion display, and we certainly encourage people to go and have a look at that, and that’s Australian artists living and working in Paris in the late 19th and early 20th century and very much producing work that is in keeping with the mood of the time in terms of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. That’s not part of the exhibition, but it’s still under the same roof and we really encourage people to go and engage with that as well…

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Installation view Colours of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2018

NC: It does look so beautiful in this Elder wing. What was the decision making process behind using this wing rather than the existing temporary exhibition space?

TM: That was Nick’s trump card. A representative from the Musée d’Orsay, was here three years ago and they were talking about the possibility of doing a show together. Nick showed them the space downstairs, which like most modern temporary exhibition spaces is just a large, artificially lit area, and they weren’t terribly impressed with that. Then he walked them through the Elder Wing, which was of course chocker block with Australian art up to the Second World War, and the representative went, oh, this reminds me of where I work, and that’s when Nick and this person realised that both buildings opened in exactly the same year. And Nick went, well, we can have the exhibition in here if you like?And apparently the representative went, I think we can do business’…

That was really what enabled us to have this exhibition, the fact that Nick thought outside the box and went, okay, this is the Elder Wing of Australian Art, but we can pack those works away and have a temporary exhibition up here and let the works sing and have room to breathe. It’s not a packed show, and even when it’s got a lot of people walking through everyone can still see. It’s not like when you have to line up for half an hour just to get a glimpse of the Mona Lisa.

NC: Have you had many people complaining that the Australian art is gone? Or is everyone just happy to see Impressionism?

TM: No, because we have put our greatest hit from our Australian collection into the Melrose Wing, and also many of our most precious works are actually on loan at the moment for major shows in other states.

NC: It’s worked out pretty well then.

TM: Yeah, and also it gives us an opportunity to do conservation on some works that need a little bit of TLC. And then it’s a circuit breaker, a palate cleanser, and of course now once the show is finished, and we are already all working on the Elder re-hang, it gives us an opportunity to re-hang the Australian collection and present that in a new light as well.

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Auguste Renoir, France, 1841-1919, Railway bridge at Chatou, 1881, oil on canvas, 54.5 x 65.5 cm, Bequest of Gustave Caillebotte, 1894, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France, photo: © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay)/René-Gabriel Ojéda

NC: Because you’re bringing in lots of people that wouldn’t normally come, have you made any moves for access?

TM: Absolutely… We have AUSLAN interpreted tours, we have tours for the vision impaired, we have all sorts of tours for children. We have almost reached capacity in terms of how many school groups we can send through before the show finishes. Obviously it’s a ticketed show, but there are a number of concessions available. We had START for 5-12 year olds, we have a NEO teen event in June. There’s absolutely a range of options. Then we have three free guided tours every single day. Then in July, we are going to be open every Friday until 9pm and I am going to do tours every Friday night for the month of July, because I hear Adelaidians like to leave things until the last moment.

NC: So it’s going to be a busy month.

TM: Yeah a busy month, but bring it on, it’s going to be great!

Natalie Carfora

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