One idea generates the next

An interview in paris with Guy Cogeval, director of the Musée d’Orsay

MúzeumCafé 37.

The exhibition Allegro Barbaro: Béla Bartók and Hungarian Modernity 1905–1920, selected from works held by the Hungarian National Gallery, as well as many other Hungarian and foreign collections, both public and private, is being staged in the Musée d’Orsay from mid October 2013. The collections of the Musée reflect art history from 1848 to 1914 in relation to changes in attitudes in the late 19th century. They include French and foreign works, from academic art through realism to post-impressionism. The permanent exhibition displays a few works by Hungarian artists who gained fame in Paris, such as Munkácsy, Paál and Rippl-Rónai. This autumn the exhibition recalling Hungarian art at the beginning of the 20th century is being presented as part of a series relating to the oeuvres of great composers. The curators, inspired by Guy Cogeval, an enthusiast of Bartók’s music, aim to show the intellectual and cultural medium which facilitated a productive connection between painting and music. They have selected documents, recordings, scores and photographs alongside some hundred paintings.


– What is the origin of your admiration for Béla Bartók and his music?

The love of music comes from my family. As a child, my parents and I regularly attended Sunday morning concerts at the Salle Wagram. I remember that once – I must have been 13 or 14 – for some reason I didn’t feel like going. A piece by Tchaikovsky, whom I particularly liked, was on in the first part. So I went and thought I’d wait for the second part and if I didn’t like the work by a composer whose name sounded strange to me I would leave. Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2 was being performed. As soon as I heard it I was mesmerised. At that moment I was captivated by Bartók’s genius and not only did I start to collect his records and regularly go to concerts of his works, I also learnt about his life. His human standing, integrity and perseverance set an example to me, so much so that for a long time I’ve regarded him as one of the greatest personalities of the 20th century. As I did not become – as used to be my dream – the director of La Scala, Milan, and so have not been able to present his opera and ballets, I have wanted to stage an exhibition which pays homage to him.


– Last summer when you visited Budapest you first went to the Bartók Memorial House. What did that visit mean to you?

After my arrival I went to Csalán Street in the Pasarét district. For a long time I’d wanted to see the Hungarian music genius’s last residence in Budapest, where he lived and composed from 1932 and which in October 1940 he left with the intention of returning following an American tour. Life did not allow it and he was never able to return to this quiet suburban villa with its idyllic garden, which provided for absorbed creation and intellectual respite. Yet the world was no longer idyllic in autumn 1940 and that fact became shockingly clear to me having talked to the staff of the memorial house. Imagine this highly sophisticated man travelling by train across Europe under German occupation with a Hungarian passport in his pocket and his Jewish wife at his side. What enormous courage was required and what trust in the future. It took them several weeks to reach Cherbourg where they boarded a ship for America, but his letters show that Bartók still thought of not leaving his country and Europe for good. That’s one of the reasons why I think that not only Bartók’s music genius but also his human standing must be valued.


– Does the exhibition with its main title Allegro Barbaro focus on Bartók as a person?

The Bartók exhibition fits in with our series dedicated to the giants of modern music. In 2011 an exhibition connected to Gustav Mahler was staged and in 2012 the Orangerie hosted one with Claude Debussy in its focus, besides paintings by Claude Monet. They presented the era of the two composers with an all-artistic approach, relating to the effects of other forms of the arts that influenced their works, as well as their friends and colleagues. Literature, painting and the theatre were highlighted in both exhibitions and many personal objects, scores, photos, novels and manuscripts were displayed. The founding principle of the Musée d’Orsay was to present the encounter and the parallels between different genres and sciences. Unfortunately, this very original interdisciplinary approach disappeared; therefore we have thought that by connecting with music we can return to, or at least approach this concept which the museum represented and which was also a feature of the period 1848–1914, a short era, but a very important one in cultural history.

Original manuscripts, scores, personal documents connected with the young composer have been loaned and with the help of works by painters, composers, musicians, writers, poets and philosophers of the time we try to recall the extremely exciting Hungarian intellectual atmosphere at the beginning of the 20th century, using also films, photographs and recordings of music in addition to works of art. In the early 20th century, music and painting in Hungary represented the same innovative, ground-breaking mentality as within the European avant-garde. Creative people fashioned their own distinctive and independent idiom, a modernity imbued with the national traditions of Hungary. Since Bartók’s avant-garde, innovative spirit was reflected in painting most sharply by The Eight, a significant part of the display includes their paintings, while other modernist styles that existed up to the end of the First World War are also exhibited.


– The exhibition will presumably be accompanied by concerts of Bartók’s music.

We have compiled a rich and varied programme. Music lovers from children to adults will find interesting concerts and performances. The concerts will include Bartók’s works basically composed before 1914, including the Mikrocosmos pieces written for children and his string quartets, works composed for choir and for piano, as well as chamber music.


– The most prominent works of Hungarian Modernism in a compiled form will for the first time be present in the Musée d’Orsay, yet Hungarian painting of the 19th century and the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries represented by Munkácsy, Paál and Rippl-Rónai are well-known to the French public.

They are rather present. It would be an exaggeration to say they are well-known, although it is true that a draft made by Mihály Munkácsy for Christ before Pilate or László Paál’s painting depicting the forest at Fontainebleau are displayed in the permanent exhibition from time to time. However, I don’t think that Hungarian works fitting the main current of the period’s endeavours are prominently present due to lack of space. It’s somewhat different with Rippl-Rónai who is more emphatically represented in the permanent exhibition due to his career and his close bond with French art. Four of his paintings were acquired by the museum during the last century. The first, a half-length portrait of his friend, the sculptor Aristide Maillol, was donated by Elek Petrovics in 1936. Two of the artist’s pastel paintings are owned by the museum, a nocturne whose exquisite frame was designed by the artist himself, and one depicting a woman holding a poppy. Due to their sensitive medium they are more often in store than oil paintings, but whenever a thematic exhibition is staged they are displayed. Our last purchase was a magnificent painting, In the Garden of the Somssichs, from Ripple- Rónai’s corn period.


– Why did you choose that work?

I’ve regarded it as important that all the major periods of the “Hungarian Nabis” would be represented in the collection; hence the “corn period”, which can be compared mainly with pointillist trends. Fortunately, this beautiful work was for sale in Judit Virág’s gallery and I managed to convince the museum’s purchasing committee that our collection would gain a lot with the painting. It was soon exhibited among other Nabis works in the museum. I have another intention regarding Rippl-Rónai. Since I wrote a monograph about Édouard Vuillard, the oeuvres of the circle’s other artists have been very much in mind. After 2003 when a Vuillard retrospective was staged in the Grand Palais I was thinking of elaborating the art of the Nabis circle’s artists to present it at monographic exhibitions. The Musée d’Orsay staged a retrospective of Maurice Denis in 2006-07 and in the next five years we would like to devote exhibitions to the painting of Pierre Bonnard and Rippl-Rónai.


– It is good to hear that we can look forward to more cooperation with the Musée d’Orsay.

I am personally committed to helping the French public become acquainted with Hungarian art in as varied a way as possible, and for more and more French people to visit your beautiful capital. I am sorry that the interior of the Bartók memorial house can be shown only on photographs in our museum, yet otherwise it is impossible to present the milieu that contains the composer’s furniture and personal objects – though how pleased I would be to bring to Paris some of the hand-painted Transylvanian furniture and wall tapestries, costumes from his collecting when in Upper Hungary or the phonograph he used to record his discoveries during his explorations. I was captivated by these objects or rather the entirety of objects and their arrangement. That’s also why I hope to succeed in making my music and art loving compatriots interested in Budapest, so they would also experience personally the magic of multi-faceted Hungarian culture. Perhaps it is easier to launch this mission with the help of the international language of music and the introduction of an oeuvre such as that of József Rippl-Rónai, which is close to the French way of thinking and taste.


– I must ask you to talk about what happened in Montreal in 2001.

As director of the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Montreal, I knew that the collection included a small picture by Giorgio Vasari, which the museum purchased legally at the art market in Switzerland in 1963, but in my view was still due to the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest. That was how the Hungarians saw it and they had made several unsuccessful attempts for it to be returned. Although international agreements regulate restitution of artworks taken abroad illegally during or after the Second World War, the two states had not been able to agree. With the cooperation of the museum and the Hungarian Ministry of Culture as well as that of International Affairs in the end the Canadian state was successfully persuaded to return the painting. It happened that Hungary’s then PM [Viktor Orbán – O.R.] was paying an official visit to Canada and at the ambassador’s reception he mentioned to me that if it was possible to arrange he would like to take the painting back to Hungary with him the following day. Luckily we managed to organise it and as a result he went from the airport straight to the Fine Arts Museum where he handed over the painting to the director.


– Apparently the staff of the Canadian museum tied a black ribbon around the package. I presume they were mourning Vasari’s painting leaving Montreal.

It’s natural. After all, with the restitution the collection in Montreal lost one of its outstanding works. My colleagues also knew that by returning the picture they did the right thing, which really was exemplary. You may remember that at that time several countries including Hungary were trying to pursue restitution claims vis-à-vis the Russian Federation, and we in Canada thought that the return of the Vasari painting might help start that difficult process. In the end we were not right. Moscow did not follow our example, but for its part the Canadian state did its best. The mutual agreement had some other proceeds besides the return of the painting. A great, spectacular and highly successful exhibition from the Budapest museum’s masterpieces was staged in Montreal in 2003.


– As a researcher you are mostly engaged with the connections of cultural history and artistic styles at the end of the 19th century. How can you balance all your tasks?

It is not simple, but I do my best. I am passionately absorbed in examining a phenomenon of cultural history or for me an interesting painter’s oeuvre; therefore, in no way would I like to give up this side of my career. Undoubtedly, I have far less time for it since I am in charge of the Musée d’Orsay and the Orangerie. At present the absolute priority goes for that responsible task. I try to continue research I began earlier and start others, but of course it’s not so easy alongside my main task. Luckily I receive much help from my colleagues regarding implementation of an idea for an exhibition I have cherished for a long time. I have an excellent team within the museum and our partner institutions.


– Was the exhibition From Stage to Painting in the Musée Cantini, Marseille, the realisation of such an old idea?

Yes. Marie-Paul Viale and I curated it and the idea goes back to the 90s when I was a professor at the École du Louvre. During the years in Montreal my former students kept asking why I didn’t turn it into an exhibition. It could not be done there for various reasons, but from the day I left Montreal I again started to be concerned with its implementation.


– The theme seems to be close to the exhibition A Hero’s Triumph and Death, staged in Lyon in 1988.

Yes, that was the first and the continuation, the second act, was 20 years later.


– But not a chronological continuation…

No. A Hero’s Triumph and Death made me interested in teaching a course which examined the role of theatricality in painting. The course prompted me to stage the exhibition Children of Paradise – I wanted to give this title to the exhibition in Marseille, but in the end I had to change it out of consideration for Prévert’s inheritors. You can see how my research topics are connected: one that’s been implemented generates the next idea and so on – the topics follow each other like this.


– The Musée d’Orsay has been housed in a former railway station since 1986. Large-scale interior conversions were done in 2010-2011, including complete rearrangement of the permanent exhibitions. Why was that necessary and have the changes been successful?

It was done for several reasons. On the one hand, when the railway station was converted into the museum not everything was ready; for example, the Pavillon Amont remained empty. Architect Dominique Brard and I wanted to have the unnecessary emptiness brought to an end, but unlike the earlier plans I not only imagined a lift and an escalator but also new storeys in order to gain more halls. That is where we now hold part of the turn-of-the-century furniture exhibition. The successful conversion of the Pavillon Amont stimulated our desire for carrying on with large-scale work, rethinking and completely reshaping the Impressionist Gallery on the fifth floor. This is the most visited part of the collection and is unavoidably always crowded. However, that old environment did not favour a direct encounter with the works. The white walls and white stone flooring, plus the light directly flooding the paintings through the roof were far too direct, far too strong. We changed the lighting so that the natural light coming from above is filtered and the artificial lighting is now provided by Solux lamps, which is the nearest possible replication of sunlight’s wave length. The floor is covered with dark wood and anthracite grey has been chosen for the walls. The glass protecting the paintings has been changed to an anti-reflective type in order for the works to be seen better. Since October 2011 visitors have experienced great changes with respect to the presentation of the whole collection. The permanent exhibition has been rearranged, except for the large central avenue of statues on the ground floor. We have tried to give a different rhythm to the presentation, naturally taking the ‘schools’ and great personalities into consideration, but we have raised the questions concerning them in a different way. I think it is better to display fewer works, but present and highlight them in a better way, with a view to making visitors reflect. Therefore, we have selected artworks that would surprise the viewer, making him or her experience more clearly the crossover between different fields of science, and highlighting the overlaps and equivalences between philosophy, psychoanalysis, the history of ideas, general history, literature, music and the arts. As much art history and science as possible must be presented to visitors today.


– This attitude can be also seen in the museum’s temporary exhibitions.

It depends where you stand. These two genres undoubtedly exercise mutual influence. Temporary, thematic selections can bring many new aspects to the surface, which are worth including in the permanent exhibitions later. Thus, for instance, at one of our temporary exhibitions in Italy Courbet’s The Origin of the World displayed next to Rodin’s The Age of Bronze and Redon’s Shell worked really well. Why not exhibit these works colliding with one another similarly in the permanent exhibition? I find this approach very exciting and my colleagues and I strive to develop the permanent displays in this direction as much as possible.