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Partial exhibition view of Orsay through the Eyes of Julian Schnabel(© Musée d’Orsay photo by Sophie Crepy Boegly)

PARIS — 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.

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)

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)?

Henri Fantin-Latour, “Chrysanthèmes in a Vase” (1873) oil on canvas, 62,7 x 54 cm Paris, Musée d’Orsay (photo © RMN-Grand Palais, Musée d’Orsay, by 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 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 velour “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.

Partial exhibition view of Orsay through the Eyes of Julian Schnabel(© Musée d’Orsay photo by Sophie Crepy Boegly)

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.

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 work.

Julian Schnabel, “Blue Nude with Sword” (1979) and Cézanne, “La Femme étranglée” (The Strangled Woman, 1876) photo Sophie Crepy Boegly

Another woeful pairing for no discernible 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.

Paul Cézanne, “Achille Emperaire” (1868) oil on canvas, 201 x 121 cm Paris, musée d’Orsay, (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)

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 (that includes Trump dining with Putin at Musée d’Orsay on November 10), Orsay through the Eyes of Julian Schnabel opens eyes to what other scathing critics, such as Robert Hughes, have suggested about Schnabel’s paintings, with which I concur. He is a poppycock painter, perfect in his personifying puffy profiteering.

Orsay through the Eyes of Julian Schnabel continues at Musée d’Orsay (1, Rue de la Légion d’Honneur, Paris) through January 13, 2019. The exhibition is curated and designed by Julian Schnabel and Louise Kugelberg on the initiative of Erlend G. Høyersten and Jens-Peter Brask.

Joseph Nechvatal

Joseph Nechvatal is an artist whose computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. In 2011 his book Immersion Into Noise was published by the University...

25 replies on “Brash, Self-flattering, Macho Excess at the Musée d’Orsay”

  1. I am struck by how much JN’s sputtering take downs of both Schnabel and the Stella Whitney show are equally applicable to his own ego-driven substance-free “critiques”.
    Maybe he should choose targets with whom he’s not so emotionally involved?
    Lazy writing. A pointless review. Maybe he feels better beating his chest?

    1. Your back 18 hours later with this pointless “comment” so my lazy writing must really be up in your head. Sweet. Thanks for it, but I feel mighy fine both before AND after the sputtering. Curious to know what emotional interests your multiple Stella defense jibs are defending.

      1. It really should have been one comment. I was struck by how well your observations regarding Schnabel fit your own work.
        If I didn’t comment on your Stella review at the time, I suppose it was because I assumed that no one was paying attention, and that the lack of depth was self-evident.
        Maybe write about stuff you like instead of grinding your ax?

        1. How you were struck remains your secret. You have trolled for Stella numerous times at Hyperallergic. Why? I write honestly and with passion about whatever moves me, but since you are an expert on my writing and my work you would know most of what I examine is done so as a “like” with sharp ax. How is just celebrating somthing other than sugar plum fairy pr non-critique? Really, I don’t think you know what you are talking about and will pay no further attention.

          1. What you might wish to observe is your attachment to being right…there is some truth here about your response to Schnabel that perhaps has more to do with you than with Julian….

          2. Now we’re talking’…funny how that for every finger that we point at others…there are three pointing back at ourselves…lighten up…breath…”this ain’t no disco….”

          3. This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco,
            This ain’t no fooling around
            No time for dancing, or lovey dovey,
            I ain’t got time for that now

          4. I prefer the elegant prose and emotional awareness of PS* in The New Yorker, but a full-out slate is rare and very welcome.

            *I’ll take my best shot at spelling his name: Peter Scheldahl — but there may be a w in there someplace, as well.

  2. Faux – Self anointed Iconoclast – sums up the entire persona of this “empty plate” teflon artist in a culture of “depressed expectations”. BRAVO for speaking out against this tragically self-absorbed individual and the nihilistic culture promoting him and his degenerate bunch !!

    1. I think your comment could well be used to describe the review.
      I’m no fan of JS, but the review says nothing of substance. It’s all outrage and posture. Not one sensible observation. Mere heckling.
      Julian may not be a great painter, but he’s more interesting than many of his critics.
      Yau, who is silly when discussing Stella, does an attentive job on Schnabel in his review here on the Gagosian show.
      Yau and JN attack Julian for his prominence, not for the work.
      Robert Hughes did the same.
      Meyer Schapiro, they ain’t.

      1. Please stop grandstanding my opposition to grandstanding – it’s redundant.
        I don’t know this critic, Mr. Nechvatal but he is simply synopsizing for me a sentiment about a culture, represented by this degenerate character called Schnabel. This position needs to be expressed to create a context for what is below the surface of his and other culture heroes work.
        I could go on about my discontent with the luminaries who have been chosen to represent the highest aspect of human consciousness – so please don’t invoke “star heckling” to deter me from voicing my opposition to a culture that is unable to separate the “wheat from the chaff”

        best

    2. Allow me to shape a sensible observation of Joy DeVijon: such shallow effrontery! I much prefer Joy Division.

      1. The day we agree, I’ll begin to worry. Schnabel is better than you say, and not nearly as good as he thinks he is.
        Stella, meanwhile, has brought a great deal to the table. You are wrong about him.

        1. Baloney. As established with Anado McLauchlin here: there is no right and wrong in the land of art opinion. re Stella: his castles made of sand, slip into the sea, eventually.

  3. Quite a polarizing article! I agree with the writer on the poor quality of JS’s works and how how ridiculous the comparison makes them feel… and personally find the writing to be one of the sharpest art-articles I’ve read in a while (and I’ve never heard of art critics – or any other decent writer for that matter – “putting their emotions aside” to write, either).
    It’s obvious to me that the feeling of JS being a self-proclaimed, empty, pompous genius with an Ubuesque personality and no hint of humor regarding himself is what the show is blatantly about in the eyes of any decent art aficionado and critic (and therefore lacking the spark of fantasy and genius that people like David Lynch or Dali show).

  4. Thank you for calling out the Emperor’s New Clothes problem which was heavily escalated by Schnabel and the NYC 80’s Art World dealers and whores, all of which brought us to where we are now, which is to say, still overlooking the myriad authentic artists in our midst, while fawning over the fame-game players and pseudo-artists who perpetuate a production line mentality for collector-investors, as if any of them have any clue at this point what real life is, at all, for the rest of us. Schabel once again transparently, self-aggrandizingly tries to assert himself into the history cannon with the true masters, but it seems like it backfired and actually shows how little his paintings hold up. But I guess if you have enough money (and ego) you can buy your way into anything. Meanwhile the truly real artists out there will humbly go on, knowing their work speaks for itself. Nothing wrong with some negative critique, especially when warranted, thanks JN.

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