by Cynthia Pepper

"Dance Class"I feel as an avid art lover, maker, big fan and groupie the real question when anyone from Marin County schlepps into the city for an art exhibit is: "Is it worth it?" From bridge toll now hovering towards the big $10.00, parking always a pain in the tushy, traffic unpredictably scary, and a half day commitment with unknown lines we have to make the experience full heartedly a winner. Well, Marinites both of the exhibits are well worth the effort to get there this summer and early Fall. Impressions of Paris, City of Light at the Legion of Honor from June 5-September 29 and Birth of Impressionism- Masterpieces from the Musée D'Orsay May 22nd -September 6th at the DeYoung Museum were amazing to me on many levels.

I started my weekend on Friday at the DeYoung. With my new membership in hand, I was pleasantly greeted by a kind man at the velvet ropes who said he would let me in no matter what time my ticket was stamped. It felt so devious and yet I was so happy I smiled at him in the biggest one I had available just so I wouldn't have to wait for 3.2 hours to enter.

These impressionist masterpieces focus on the turbulent period of the 1860's and 1870's when the social and political events that occurred were all blended together with strong writing, publications, printmaking and original artwork set against the Government controlled Paris Salon. They made strong statements, got people jailed, opening up the rights of the working class and revealed to the public secret worlds the world had never seen. It was a band of honor when an artist was rejected from the salon. He/she could then become even more famous with their own exhibit showing across the street. Edouard Manet was at the center of all the drama and jumped back and forth from both sides from the Monet, Renoir and Sisley worlds to the established artists that were confirmed by the Government. The first piece that caught my eye was the Whistler piece of his mother. Arrangement in Gray and Black, No: 1: Portrait of the Painter's Mother, 1871. Or more commonly known as Whistler's Mother. How could this small yet huge in power historical piece become so famous? I understand after gaining weight with all the sugar flowing from Bouguereau's The Birth of Venus, these political artists had to show the realities of the world. The works preceding their time just seemed so full of fantasy and strange imagery that didn't match the suffering. These new works hit a reality button that had never been previously touched. These beautiful paintings and prints showed not so pretty pictures that everyone wanted to view at the time.

What made the Legion of Honor Show that much more fulfilling than the DeYoung was the inclusion of photography in the varied exhibit up on the hill. These black and white masterpieces showed sick dilapidated hellish buildings, the sadness and anguish of a deprived and starving world. Pencil sketches of dead horses splayed on the street. The artists honored laborers by painting them in a larger scale than ever shown before. This was their way of displaying their power in a new way to elite society. The artists honored the working class at a time when so many wanted to turn away.

To see Degas's actual famous smaller than I expected painting entitled: The Dance Class brought happy tears to my eyes. For 15 years I observed its stillness at my dentist office. At the DeYoung it seemed to move a bit and when I observed it I was almost sure I heard piano music. Wow it was beautiful!

Both of the museums in our fine city showing famous pieces from a pivotal time in art history have just got to be seen. Why? You may ask, well according to the Director of the Musé d'Orsay when asked why the Impressionists are so loved by the public, "there is a fraternity between the visitor and Impressionism that you don't have with other painters. You feel the contact between the artist and nature". Even if you feel connected to any of the artists it is still very special to watch how these hard core rebels painted their way into Target's poster bin and onto refrigerator magnets of today. The images are very common and according to the French President Nicolos Sarkozy, "this is a once in a lifetime exhibit and these pieces will almost certainly never be lent out again for exhibition all together."

Yes, Marin this is the only set of museums in the world to show so many exquisite yet historical pieces together. Oh, the schlepp to San Francisco is well worth it however you get there. A worthy afternoon spent, even just to see what all the talk is about or to hang out with some French people for an afternoon.

Cynthia Pepper

Photo of the painting DANCE CLASS by Edgar Degas

~ Marin Arts Magazine, August 2010