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.
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)?
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.