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Paris' Musee d'Orsay to open new galleries after 2-year renovation

October 20, 2011 |  6:30 am

Musée d’Orsay

Whistler’s subtle grays, Bonnard’s warm kitchen table interiors, Caillebotte’s whites on snow-capped Paris rooftops and Gauguin’s teal blues are being seen under a new light at the revamped Musée d’Orsay, which was scheduled to open Thursday.

[Updated, 12:52 p.m. Oct. 20: The opening has been delayed by a strike.]

After a two-year $27-million renovation, adding new exhibit spaces to the building erected as a train station in 1900, and shuffling its rich collection of Impressionists and other works, the museum hopes to ensure that its masterpieces are displayed under the best possible circumstance, and once-popular white walls are mostly gone.

“Little by little, we’ve abandoned the spirit of the train station,” said Guy Cogeval, president of the Musée d’Orsay and the l’Orangerie museum. “It’s the collection that interests me more than the fact that it was a train station.”

Pushing beyond the conservative tendency in the museum business, as he has also demonstrated with out of the ordinary temporary exhibits, Cogeval said the extent of the changes go beyond what he expected to do by the time the museum reaches its 25th anniversary in December.

“There’s a strong force of inertia in museums,” he said. “ We thought we could never change the Musee d’Orsay, but you’ll see that there’s no fatalism in this museum. We can change things.”

Gone are the marble white and beige walls, plus the indirect natural lighting that made the Impressionist gallery on the museum’s top floor an overwhelming echo-chamber (especially on typical, crowded days), with blinding natural light that washed over the paintings.

“We got rid of the architecture that the paintings had to compete with,” said Jean Michel Wilmotte, the architect for the Impressionist galleries. The Italian architect Gae Aulenti designed the dramatic interiors in 1981 and the museum has long been very popular.

While the main, arched hall of the museum with its ornate, massive clock has not been touched, now nearly all the building’s other smaller gallery spaces are more intimate, and give the sense of being in an entirely different museum, one that also feels more accessible. The effect, officials say, is not unlike what one might have encountered in the homes of collectors at the time the paintings were created.

“I hope that every visitor to the museum can feel like they have a Degas all to himself, with a halo of silence around, even if there’s a crowd,” Cogeval said.

Stone floors were covered with dark, waxed wood. Controlled, direct natural and artificial lighting on paintings, plus walls flush in rich shades of grays, and a range of teal blues, greens and beiges on the bottom floors, bring out vivid colors in the works. Officials say the overall result is particularly appropriate for Impressionist paintings, which explore the subtle play of natural light and color. Sculptures by Rodin, and other artists of the time, were also added to the Impressionist galleries.

“With Impressionists, it wasn’t working to have white stone,” said Cogeval. “It was saturated with white, and you missed the subtlety between colors on the paintings.… For years I heard that the Americans had better collections than us, but it was just a problem of presentation,” he said.

So far, nearly half of the museum has been renovated, with additional unused space transformed into new exhibit and circulation areas. Much of the funding was raised by keeping the museum open during the two years of renovation, and sending large exhibits around the world.

Cogival commissioned the architect Dominique Brard to create five new floors for gallery space in a massive pavilion, making it a home for modern and decorative arts including tapestries, furniture, sculpture and paintings, with an emphasis on the Nabis movement of the early 20th century. Regular visitors will not recognize most of the works because many were brought from storage, returned from loans or newly acquired.

This Amont Pavilon is an example of Cogaval’s push to immerse a viewer in the environment and context in which the works were produced, by diversifying the range of artwork displayed together from a single period, rather than separating galleries by artist or discipline technique, as was common before he took charge three years ago. The current temporary show called “Beauty, Morals and Voluptuousness in the England of Oscar Wilde,” running until January, also mixes artistic disciplines.

-- Devorah Lauter, reporting from Paris

Photo: In one gallery, one of Monet's lilies paintings with a Rodin sculpture. Credit: Devorah Lauter