Article by Mario Sanguinet
March 28, 2022
A few days after Christmas 1873, a group of French artists weary of the onslaught of rejections from the Salon—one of the leading, if not the leading, art exhibition in the 19th century put on by the French Government—formed a collective, “Société Anonyme des Artistes, Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs.” Less than four months later, on April 15, 1874, this group of renegades opened their own exhibition to circumvent the gatekeepers and showcase their work.
This first exhibit was open for a month and featured 165 works. If you tried to buy those pieces today, it would cost you a fortune. Why? Because this art display, by and for renegades, included work from those who would later become known as the Impressionists.
This modest showing would be the first of eight put on by the collective. It included three pieces by Paul Cézanne, five by Camille Pissarro, five by Alfred Sisley, six by Pierre Auguste Renoir, nine by Claude Monet, and 10 by Edgar Degas. Most of these men would become “the backbone of the [Impressionist] movement.”
And for a limited time, you can see the work of some of these artists and a few others at the San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA) in their exhibition Monet to Matisse: Impressionist Masterpieces from the Bemberg Foundation, which runs through August 7, 2022.
During her remarks for the Circle Opening a few days before the exhibition was accessible to the public, Roxana Velásquez, Maruja Baldwin Executive Director and CEO at the SDMA said, “The mission of this institution [is] to bring to the community, the best art created.”
Monet to Matisse does that. The exhibition is a tour de force, with over 60 works from some of the best-known European artists from the last century and a half, like Cézanne, Degas, Monet, and Sisley. But it also includes pieces by Berthe Morisot, Pierre Bonnard, and Pablo Picasso. All the works in this exhibition are from The Bemberg Foundation based in the Hótel d’Assézat in Toulouse, France.
The SDMA was able to secure the loan of these paintings from The Bemberg Foundation because their building is being renovated. “So the collection is not on view anymore in Toulouse, and to have the opportunity to show it [in San Diego]… It’s a fantastic opportunity and great context for [us] to show the collection,” said Alfred Pacquement, President of The Bemberg Foundation, when he spoke to Vanguard Culture.
This is the second time The Bemberg Foundation loans artwork to the SDMA. Thus, highlighting a continued partnership between these two institutions. The first time was during the summer of 2021 with the Cranach to Canaletto exhibition.
But what might be worth noting is the speed at which this project came to fruition. “This product took us four months and a half to be cooked, negotiated, transported, and exhibited. It is true. It is not an exaggeration,” Velásquez emphasized.
The presence of such a collection is a big deal, on its own. But if you consider these pieces from the Bemberg catalog rarely leave their home in France. If you consider this is the first time all these pieces are in California. If you consider it took two major artistic institutions less than five months to make the exhibition a reality. If you consider all this happened amidst a global pandemic, it makes you appreciate the pieces even more.
Julie Duhaut-Bedos, French Consul general in Los Angeles, echoed this sentiment when she spoke to Vanguard Culture, “I’m impressed by the exhibition because it’s very rare that the artworks from the Bemberg collection travel.” She was also amazed by how quickly the logistics were arranged, given all the constraints created by COVID, “I think it’s a world record, to set up an exhibition, and especially an exhibition of this quality,” in four and a half months.
“We were very happy to support it. To give the support from the consulate general and the French Embassy to such a wonderful cultural connection between our countries,” said Duhaut-Bedos, who drove from Los Angeles to San Diego on the night of the Circle Opening, which can serve as a proxy of the scope and significance of this cultural and artistic exchange.
When I asked what he would like people to walk away from this exhibition, Pacquement joked, “I hope that nothing is taken away! We want the works back in Toulouse after a few months.” He continued, “I hope that people will get the pleasure of dialogue with beautiful paintings of the Impressionist, the Post-Impressionist, [and the] modernist of the early 20th century.”
But not everyone who has seen these paintings admired them. “Remember that the Impressionists were also revolutionaries, they transformed the way of seeing things,” said Velásquez the SDMA’s CEO towards the middle of her remarks.
A more extreme version of this comes from “30 Rock” where Liz Lemon yells, “Rejection from society is what created the X-men!” While this is obviously a joke from an early 21st century US sitcom, it captures the essence of what the Impressionists must have felt like and experienced in 19th century France.
After all, they were diverging from generally accepted artistic conventions. They were breaking norms. They were mutating the nature of art. But, they were also right to start their own exhibition to display their own works. And history has backed them up, eventually, they showed the gatekeepers.
Today, the Salon is no more. But the Impressionists’ art has endured. Their work can be found hanging across major museums around the world. And now you can see it here in San Diego.