Until June 11, 2012, there is a special exhibit on the life of Debussy at the Orangerie Museum (Musee de l’Orangerie) in Paris, where you can see how music and graphic arts intersect.
The Orangerie is probably most famous for Claude Monet’s huge Water Lilies paintings (Les Nymphéas), but also has works by Pablo Picasso, Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse, Auguste Renoir, and Amadeo Modigliani, among others, in the Jean Walter and Paul Guillaume collection. Debussy was much influenced by many of the late 19th and early 20th century artists, so this museum is a perfect venue for such an exhibition.
The special exhibition—Debussy: Music and the Arts—is downstairs on the basement level, where they’ve set up a special space. We found it very interesting, as this is a neat way of linking and tying together art and music and how they can influence each other. It also shows how the same kinds of things—nature, the sea, the weather, for example—can inspire both visual art and music. Very logical actually.
For us, it was fascinating as another piece of the puzzle that is the life and times of the Impressionists: who they were, what they did, what inspired them. Debussy was friends with Degas and Renoir, James McNeill Whistler, Joseph Mallord William Turner, but also knew Manet and Monet, and Camille Claudel.
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was considered to be one of the 20th century’s most influential composers and one of the most prominent in impressionistic music (although he disliked that term being applied to his music), along with Maurice Ravel. A few of the composers he influenced were Igor Stravinsky, Philip Glass, Bela Bartok, Pierre Boulez, and George Gershwin.
His music reflected the activities and turbulence in his own life and this Debussy exhibition—a collection of paintings, prints, musical scores and household items—tries to illustrate that. It aims to show how Debussy found his greatest inspiration in the visual arts, and tries to evoke the composer’s life and encounters with performers, painters and poets of his time.
We learn snippets of information such as: Debussy won the Prix de Rome in 1884 and spent a 4-year residency in Rome. When he returned to Paris from Rome, three family friends became his patrons: Arthur Fontaine, the painter Henri Lerolle, and the composer Ernest Chausson.
Like the artists of his time, he was attracted to Pre-Raphaelite painters, Japanese arts (Hokusai’s The Great Wave inspired Debussy’s The Sea in 1905), the Symbolists, and Art Nouveau. Many artists were also inspired by archeological excavations, especially in Greece, linking them to myths and legends. Debussy was asked to write music to accompany the production of The Afternoon of a Faun, the great poem that Edouard Manet had illustrated. This project was never carried out, but inspired Debussy to compose his great masterpiece Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, first performed in 1894. Nijinsky wrote a ballet of this prelude, which was both a scandal and masterpiece at the time, with the choreography designed around poses on Greek vases in the Louvre. He and Nijinsky collaborated again on the ballet Jeux (1913), which was not very popular. Debussy’s greatest stage work is his only opera Pelléas and Melisande, which was very innovative at the time.
Afterwards, go upstairs to the Water Lilies rooms, to sit and contemplate, to absorb their beauty and complexity, and to realize that, in spite of the crowds, it IS possible to reach a feeling of peace and calmness by looking at these works—as Monet intended. During this time of the special exhibit, a pianist plays a special musical selection in the second Water Lily room, which is a wonderful experience in that setting. Every day at 11am and 3pm for 20 minutes.
If you’re interested in Impressionism, Monet, his Water Lilies, Debussy, or just French art in general, this is a great place to visit. It’s a museum that never seems to disappoint.
The special exhibition on Debussy will end June 11, 2012, so there is till time to catch it.
Musee D’Orangerie, in the Tuileries Gardens (Place de la Concorde side).
General entrance, including entrance to the special exhibit “Debussy: Music and the Arts” is 7.50 euros per adult, 5 euros for students and teachers. No reduction for seniors.
Open daily, except Tuesdays and May 1, morning of July 14, December 25.