INTERVIEW: Paul Perrin about Colours of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée D’Orsay

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I recently had a chat with Paul Perrin, Curator of the Museé D’Orsay while he was in Australia for the opening of the Art Gallery of South Australia’s major exhibition, Colours of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée D’Orsay. Dates and ticket information at the end of the article.


Why are the impressionists so important?

I think that the impressionists were really decisive and important for modern art because they were the first to really decide to move away from conventions of art and painting, to explore with a new voice, to go further in their exploration of colour, light, time, and movement. So I think that really it was the impressionists who felt like exploring something that had never been done before. And then I think that in so doing, in researching, that their principal goal was the light – how to represent light, how to represent changes in light. I think that in doing that, little by little, they opened art up to something more abstract which is independent to the painting vis à vis traditional conventions of representing light.


Where does the name impressionist come from?

It was from a painting by Monet, “Impression: sunrise” (which isn’t in Adelaide for the exhibition because it is not from the Musée D’Orsay but from the Musée Marmottan). And this painting is a sketch. So it’s a view of Havre, of the port of Havre with the sun rising. So this painting was exhibited at the first group exhibition…when they got together to exhibit as a group, this painting was shown. In the press, a critic mocked Monet saying “but really impression: sunrise, these painters are impressionists, these are impressions“. So it was pejorative and negative at the beginning. But then little by little, the artists themselves used the word so it became a part of everyday language.

Monet’s “Impression, soleil levant” – image from the Musée Marmottan’s website


Just as the term impressionist was used as something negative, the impressionists’ paintings were not accepted by the Salon and were not appreciated and were even judged as vulgar. At least the impressionists ended up being accepted while still alive compared to Van Gogh whose works were only appreciated after his death.

Yes, the impressionists are a little different because at the beginning they were regularly rejected by the official academic system, critiques and purchasers, the visitors of the time, but progressively, they found friends, critics, collectors who would support them, who would buy their paintings, dealers who would really invest in them – so there were a few people who believed in them and little by little, they created their market for impressionism.


Do we know the names of those who believed in them?

Yes. ..They are not very well-known today but there were a few art lovers. One was an art lover called Choquet, an eccentric character, who didn’t have much money but who liked their paintings and who started to buy their impressionist paintings. The dealer, Durant-Ruel, he really bought paintings, supported them, organised exhibitions and supported the market that goes with it. Therefore, from the 1890s, they became really popular; they had the support of art lovers all around the world, especially in the United States. At the end of their lives, Renoir and Monet lived very comfortably and were quite rich and earned a lot of money from their paintings.

Monet’s “Champs de tulipes en Hollande” is just one of 10 Monet paintings included in the exhibition

So we have 65 of these paintings in Adelaide for the Colours of Impressionism exhibition and it has been a four year long project?

Yes we have been working on this project for four years.


How did you choose the 65 paintings that we see here?

The idea really was to choose the best paintings which could tell the story of impressionism in colour. We looked for the most beautiful and most interesting paintings in our collections that could illustrate the story of colour. So that’s really how we organised our journey. The idea was to have masterpieces, very well-known works as well as lesser known works from our collection. So to have a mix of both and also, among those to then have both very well-known artists – we have for example 10 paintings by Claude Monet, but to also have artists that people may not know as well so to have variety.

Claude Monet’s “Le bassin aux nympheas, harmonie rose” is one very recognisable painting included in the exhibition


How did you decide upon the idea of doing an exhibition on the theme of colour?

In discussions with my colleague, the other exhibition curator, Marine Kisiel, we asked ourselves how could we tell the story of impressionism differently but in a way which is simple, and which allows us to have a very beautiful screen because that’s the aim – that these paintings are radiant and beautiful. What interested Marine Kisiel and I was also the way in which these paintings were done. We are a part of a generation of art historians and curators – our predecessors worked a lot on the question of iconography (social history, culture, gender, all those sorts of things) and in the end we weren’t really looking at the materials. The basics, how they did it, why they use this or that colour, how they put this colour next to that one, why… So we decided to come back to something basic, which is colour and we are going to see if we can tell a different story.


Often when we see an exhibition, it’s either by artist or by subject, so it’s really different to go from one room to another with the colours that change.

There are rooms in which we have really successfully managed to form coherent colour ensembles, black, white, green and blue and then the others are more mixed because finally we come to the end of the period and it goes in every direction. So then we cannot say that everything is one colour. In fact, it goes in all directions. Therefore, in the end it’s almost more a rainbow of colour than the paintings at the beginning. It’s true that we have looked a little and no one has ever done an impressionist exhibition organised by colour before.

Neo-impressionist paintings included in the exhibition show the depart from the original impressionists’ techniques and style


And after Adelaide, the exhibition will go back to Paris? Has there been interest for the exhibition to travel elsewhere?

The exhibition has already had a leg in Singapore before coming here to Adelaide and then back to Paris.


Are the paintings we have here being replaced with others in the Musée D’Orsay during this exhibition?

Yes, we picked through our reserves to replace the paintings. So people in Paris will also get to see other paintings – it’s the opportunity to show other paintings. There are always things to see at Musée D’Orsay.


Which is your favourite painting in the exhibition?

My favourite painting is a complicated question to answer.  It’s hard to choose. The Magpie, the Monet painting, is the one that I had in my bedroom when I was little because when I visited the Musée D’Orsay when I was little, I asked my parents to buy me the poster. So it’s a painting that I saw in my bedroom for a long time and which gave me the desire to study art history and to work in a museum.  But today, it’s not necessarily the one I’d choose today. I really like Renoir now. But I think (The Magpie) is the one with which I have a special relationship.

Claude Monet’s “La Pie” (The Magpie) is a painting close to exhibition curator, Paul Perrin’s heart.


With these paintings having such incredible values, I don’t even dare ask about insuring them!

Insurance costs a lot. In fact I think that government support was needed to insure the exhibition. They came over by plane – all art transport is by plane or by truck, but here that’s a little tricky! So it all came by plane from Paris. I can’t really talk too much about the details as it’s a bit of a secret.


For example we see in films that each painting is in its own wooden create –

Yes they are purpose made wooden creates which are isothermal with aluminium and different materials on the inside to ensure the object is really well protected from shock and climatic changes.


Is it the first time these paintings have been to Australia?

Some were already loaned for exhibitions in the past. But for the majority, it’s the first time they’ve been here.

Image: Saul Steed

When and why did you decide to become a curator?

In French we use two words – conservateur – when we are responsible for a collection in a museum and then, when you put together an exhibition, a commissaire d’exposition. Curator in English encompasses both. I was interested in art history but also in being in contact with the general public, not just being in my books doing research at my desk but also in having discussions when we do guided tours, and especially to offer a physical experience which is that of a visit to the museum, visiting an exhibition – it interests me a lot not just scholarly art history but to also be an educational place, an emotional place – I wanted to really work in a museum.


And in fact it all started with The Magpie!



Without being indiscrete, are you quite young for such a position in such a well-known museum?

Yes. I’m 31. Yes, I was really lucky to get this job at the Musée D’Orsay so quickly. In France, we have a competitive examination to become a curator. So I passed the examination and became curator and at the end of the examination, there was a job available at the Musée D’Orsay. It happened at a moment when the Director of the Musée D’Orsay wanted to rejuvenate and have a young eye on its collections so I was lucky. That was 4 years ago.


Is it your first time in Australia?

Yes I’ve been here for 2 weeks and I leave tomorrow morning [which was the morning after the exhibition’s opening night].


You can visit Colours of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée D’Orsay at the Art Gallery of South Australia until 29 July. You can purchase undated tickets here or at the gallery. I will also publish a review of the exhibition in the coming weeks but I can already give you a preview of what it will say: it’s definitely worth a visit!


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Tasting Australia is on in Adelaide from 13-22 April 2018 and features a number of events with a French twist. One such event as we mentioned in our 7 must attend events at Tasting Australia is the Old World vs New World event to be hosted by 2KW Bar and Restaurant on 19 April. Join 5 Australian wine-makers for a 5 course dinner by former Vue du monde guest chef Paolo Arlotta as they discuss wine-making, their lifestyle and also share their favourite vinyl albums. 5 French wines will also be poured alongside the Australian wines to demonstrate differences between new and old world wines. Tickets have sold out but you can read more about the event here.

I had a chat to Liinaa Berry who will be the Maître D for the evening about the event.


Who are the 5 South Australian minimal interventionist wine-makers that you will be featuring at the event?


The Other Right

Commune of Buttons

Gentle Folk

Shobbrook Wines

Ochota Barrels


What is minimum intervention wine-making and how does it compare to its opposite?


Wines that are made with very little or no additions, like new oak, yeast, enzymes, acid and sulphur.


The opposite is a wine that is made according to a formula or recipe with the winemaker having to intervene several times during the winemaking process by adding some or all the components mentioned above.


A minimum interventionist does not mean a winemaker who does not do much during winemaking. What it means, is he or she will work every year to produce a wine that will reflect the vintage, rather than a wine that is made to standard to satisfy the common notion of what a wine should taste like. He or she also, preferably, does not fine or filter the wine in order not to strip away a lot of the qualities.


Is the old world wine from the culture of natural winemaking but the Australian, new world wine normally of the progressive winemaking side?


Both old and new world are minimum interventionists and progressive. Some of the old world counterparts are also progressive with their winemaking, as they redefine concepts of regionality and resist the rules of the AOC (appellation d’Origine Controlee)


What French wines will you be featuring?


These are all surprise wines to be revealed on the night.


What can we expect on the menu?


2KW head chef Trent collaborating with Chef Paolo (ex Vue de Monde, Tipo 00) – food that is not heavy in protein, delicate flavours to match the wines.


Who is this event for?


For anyone who is curious to understand more about what differentiates old and new world wines, wines that are made as naturally as possible, people who want to meet producers and engage them about their raison d’être, lifestyle and passion rather than just the winemaking part.


This dinner will suit the open-minded, gregarious person who is avid to be part of something progressive.


The event is said to be “More than just wine, it is  really about lifestyle and how the influences of culture, social make up and climate can impact what makes it into the bottle, and in turn your glass.” How do cultural, social make-up and climatic influences impact wine-making?


The winemakers who make their wines – what influences or inspire them, what drives them to make a particular style? Like a writer who writes a book, where do the ideas stem from? Their environment, the company they hold, the food they eat, the music they listen to and the region in which they have to farm their grapes… and how to work with nature to produce wines that they want to drink, a wine that is part of them rather than a wine produced for a big company stripped of real sense or individuality.


Is it rare to find “new world” wine makers who make wine with minimum intervention, that is natural winemaking?


Won’t get into this as it is a very touchy subject.


Have you already tried wines from these 5 wine-makers? Are you going to any Tasting Australia events?