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Paris art lights up San Francisco

Outside the lobby of the Legion of Honor fine arts museum in San Francisco. (Melodie Miu)

Two dancers walk briskly across the grand foyer, followed closely by their stern ballet mistress, towards their dressing rooms. The white chiffon dresses the ballerinas wear seem to illuminate the dim-lit room; their presence immediately ignites hushed whispers complimenting their beauty. The affluent, darkly dressed suitors gather around them and cannot help but look.

Artist Jean-Louis Forain used quick, masterful strokes to capture this scene in the oil canvas painting “Foyer of the Opéra.” The piece is one of more than 180 prints, drawings, photographs, paintings and illustrated books showcased in the ‘Impressionist Paris: City of Light’ special exhibition now at the Legion of Honor. The title refers to 19th century Paris’ byname, “la ville lumière,” which the city earned “with the proliferation of gas lamps that lit up the French capital, turning night into day.”

Although ‘City of Light’ is not as popular as its adjoining gallery, ‘The Birth of Impressionism from the Musée d’Orsay’ exhibition at the de Young Museum — which ended earlier this month — it has still garnered a fair crowd thus far. Through seven rooms, viewers gain a rare insight into Impressionist Paris’ other strong art movements and their methods, such as print-making, lithography and etching.

Outside of the 'Impressionist Paris: City of Light' special exhibition. No photography inside the gallery. (Melodie Miu)

While an art exhibit may sound stuffy to some, the ‘City of Light’ offers quite a few amusing pieces. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s “The Seated Clown,” a color lithograph print made of crayon, brush, spatter and scraper, depicts French bohemian artist Mademoiselle Cha-U-Kao. With an eccentric, white-blonde up-do, a bright yellow, highly-ruffled costume top and prominent stage experience, Cha-U-Kao could have been the original pop icon Lady Gaga.

The head of a popular female performer, whose identity is only indicated by her signature long black gloves, in the upper left corner of Toulouse-Lautrec’s promotional poster “Divan Japonais” is comically cut out of the image because, in reality, she was tall.

Satire greatly entertained Bill Hartman, an infrequent museum-goer, who spent time observing cartoons by political caricaturist André Louis Gosset de Guines, better known as André Gill, who illustrated for the 19th century newspaper L’Eclipse. One of the colorful ‘gillotage’ — the method of rolling waxy ink onto sidewalls of lines and dots — posters that caught his eye was “L’Eclipse and Censorship, 1871.”

The gillotage shows a blindfolded man tiptoeing over eggshells labeled with topics considered controversial at the time, such as the ‘Prussian question,’ ‘monetary crisis,’ ‘Bonapartisme’ and ‘Commune.’ For Gill, the big issues affecting all of France were not addressed by leaders and, in turn, were censored from the public.

“Today’s cartoonist ain’t got nothing on these guys,” Hartman said as he shook his head in amazement. “I know next to nothing about French politics, but you get a good idea of what happened in those days. A caricature as good as these is an effective caricature.”

'Afternoon in the Cluny Garden, Paris 1889' painted by Charles Courtney Curran. Oil on canvas.

Gail Tracy, an art enthusiast, took a particular liking to Charles Courtney Curran’s “Afternoon in the Cluny Garden.” Although the oil panel painting was 9 1/4” by 12”, very small in comparison to other works on display, its depiction of a simple sunny day in a garden is filled with detail.

Two women at the lower left corner read books on lounge chairs and under a crimson parasol, while the giant leaves of a banana plant behind them spread out like a halo. In the distance are two marble pillars and other figures exploring the dreamy locale with their colorful umbrellas. The complementary contrast of red and green brought attention to other aspects of the painting, such as the flowers in the far background and the grassy floor.

“It’s all about light,” Tracy said, observing the umbrella’s red hue softly reflecting on the women’s shoulders and clothing. Tracy then declared with a hearty laugh, “Maybe that’s where the name of the exhibit came from!”

'The Eiffel Tower, Paris, 1889' painted by Georges Seurat. Oil on panel. (Courtesy of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, FAMSF)

Possibly the most iconic work in the exhibit is the “Eiffel Tower,” painted by Neoimpressionist Georges Seurat, who is most famous for “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Enthused by color theory, Seurat focused on optical effects of how two colors juxtaposed — slightly overlapped or very close together — would have the effect of another color when observed from a distance. Seurat pioneered a technique called pointillism by applying contrasting dots of paint to create much of his art, including the “Eiffel Tower,” with the hope that the colors would mix themselves in the viewer’s eye.

The very small yet impressively colorful piece is one of a number of depictions of the symbolically romantic Eiffel Tower, but is the only painting in the exhibit with a protective glass cover. Spectators crowd around the piece to take closer looks into the juxtaposition of dots, then step back to take in the whole image. Amongst the viewers was Scott Smith, who was on a date with his girlfriend Monique Mitchell.

For Smith, the “Eiffel Tower” showcased “great use of light” in “thirty different colors.”

“But I am a little disappointed in the frame they used; it’s ostentatious and really takes away the painting’s effect,” Smith said, referencing the thick gold-panel frame.

Part-time security guard Amjad Sayeg walks through the gallery every few minutes to monitor crowds. Although he didn’t get a good look at most of the City of Light artwork, Sayeg admires lithographic poster prints at the end of the exhibit.

Jules Chéret's 'Musee Grevin: John Hewelt’s Puppet Theater 1900.’ Color lithograph. The one displayed was printed without text for the collector's market.

The popular use of lithography replaced woodblocks and etching prints in the production of commercial art. The technique calls for flat stone or metal surfaces to absorb or repel ink, then be placed on paper to create mirror images equivalent to a photo negative. Lithography came into play especially due to the vast color variety the new process provided that was limited in traditional printing presses.

Painter-and-lithographer Jules Chéret, also known as the Father of the Modern Poster, created a majority of the prints showcased. He dominated the Belle Époque golden age by taking classic styles and transforming them into modern art forms. He used his posters to advertise for theaters, music performances and cabaret, such as the Moulin Rouge, by glamorizing lively female characters named Chérettes. Chéret employed the theme of frivolity and dazzling colors to draw in viewers previously used to seeing monotone, somber art. His huge color lithograph “Musee Grevin: John Hewelt’s Puppet Theater 1900” promoted a marionette orchestra show with happy performers dancing on stage.

“Most of it is very nostalgic and beautiful; even the set up (outside the gallery) is serene,” Sayeg said, referring to the entire exhibit. “It’s worth it to see this.”

The ‘Impressionist Paris: City of Light’ special exhibition is located on the lower level of the museum (walk down either staircases in the lobby) and will only run until Sunday, September 26, 2010.

Visiting the Legion of Honor:

The Legion of Honor is located on 100 34th Avenue at San Francisco, CA 94121 and open Tuesdays to Sundays from 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Here is the recommended transit route: View Larger Map

Admission for college students with I.D. is $6 while children twelve years old and under are admitted for free. MUNI riders with Fast Pass or bus transfer receive a $2 discount. Last tickets to special exhibitions are sold one hour before closing.

The audio tour, $7, is not included in the special exhibit and not necessary to purchase for other galleries due to the small number of audio points in the museum. If you still plan to buy one, have your photo I.D. handy to exchange at the front desk.

For more information, visit their website.