Smith College Show on Debussy's Paris Delights on Many Levels

Going to the Smith bulb show? Make sure you stop by the art museum.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s poster image of Aristide Bruant is one of the most recognizable graphics in the Western world. But who was he? Ten

points if you know he was a famed cabaret singer. Give yourself twenty more if you have the foggiest idea what he sounded like.

Hearing Bruant while gazing upon his poster is among the many delights in a newly opened show at the Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA) in Northampton, MA (now through June 10), and the exhibit isn’t even about him or Toulouse-Lautrec. It’s just a small part of a show in honor of the 150th anniversary of the birth of classical composer Claude Debussy. Those who have seen other shows at the SCMA will be pleasantly surprised by Debussy’s Paris: Art, Music and Sounds of the City. Smith has one of the finest private collections of art of any college in America and has launched many superb shows, but it seldom generates buzz for creative displays. Let us hope that guest curator Laura Kalba, a Smith professor of art, has just raised the bar; Debussy’s Paris is a visual, aural, and intellectual delight.

I admit that I the thought of the exhibit did not initially thrill me; Debussy’s music is too mannered for my taste. What the exhibit does, though, is play off the myriad contrasts of fin-de-siècle Paris. It was a world in which Debussy’s music--often labeled impressionistic--coincided with the artistic movement called impressionism, as well as symbolism, the first rumblings of surrealism, plebeian culture, and emerging commercial popular culture. One of the many joys of the SCMA show is its embrace of popular culture. Long before we get to the computer station where Debussy’s music can be heard, we stop at listening posts to hear the singsong patter of street peddlers and sampl

e recordings of the kinds of Parisian street sounds Debussy would have heard. Even better, we learn to appreciate the manner in which popular and fine art collided in the late 19th century. The spectacular theatrical modern dance of Loie Fuller, for instance, would not have been possible without the perfection of electricity. In like fashion, her flowing sensual movements owed more to can-can dancers than the buttoned-down world of bourgeois Paris. And let us not forget that painters such as Manet, Monet, Pissaro, Bonnard, and Seurat–all on display–were only slightly less scandalous to bourgeois critic

s than the cabaret stars, prostitutes, and absinthe-drinkers painted by Toulouse-Lautrec.

Debussy–whose private life was a shamble–sampled all these worlds, with much of his music evoking the symbolism of painters such as Odilon Redon, the chaotic pulses of the street, and developing modernist impulses. In the most direct example, Debussy wrote his famed “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” in response to a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé, and sought to replicate the sound cadences of that work. And speaking of cadences, you could hear piston-like staccato in the cabaret, especially in the songs of Yvette Guilbert, who sang as if the jackhammer was making way for structures she intended to compromise with irony and humor.

I came away with new appreciation for Claude Debussy, though Bruant and Guilbert remain more my cup of tea. (Or should I say absinthe?) Years ago I read UMass professor emeritus Charles Rearick’s superb Pleasures of the Belle Epoch: Entertainment and Festivity in Turn-of-the-Century France and imagined what that world must have been like. Thanks to Debussy’s Paris: Art, Music and Sounds of the City, I have a better idea.

Those venturing to Smith for its annual spring bulb show (March 3-19) should definitely set aside time to see this exhibit.

No comments: