Paris in autumn can be damp and gray, with plunging temperatures that make sidewalk cafés and long walks along the Seine less than romantic. Luckily, the city has a tradition of outfoxing the fall gloom with the indoor dazzle of its museums, galleries and exhibition halls. This fall's lineup is exceptionally eclectic. In addition to the blockbuster Matisse and Picasso show at the Grand Palais and the big Max Beckmann retrospective at the Centre Pompidou, the season's new shows include Old Masters, guitar gods and great photographers.
At the Musée d'Orsay, Manet/Velázquez, The Spanish Manner in the 19th Century documents the influence of the great 17th and 18th century Spanish painters Velázquez, Muríllo, Zurbarán, Ribéra, Goya on such 19th century French artists as Manet, Delacroix, Chassériau and Courbet. What the French learned from their Spanish predecessors was a gritty realism previously unknown in France's academic art world ordinary subjects like beggars and street urchins, freely painted, with color used to sculpt volume and the daring use of black.
One caveat: the curators have chosen to display the show's 115 paintings and drawings in chronological order, Spaniards first, French second: often, several galleries separate the paintings the show intends to compare. But it's worth the back-and-forth legwork to see such superb pairings as Velázquez's 1636-37 full-length portrait of the actor Pablo de Valladolid with Manet's 1865-66 The Tragic Actor, Portrait of Rouvičre in the role of Hamlet. With 40 paintings and drawings, Manet dominates the show, but the five Velázquez portraits alone are worth the long lines out front.
Constable, the Choice of Lucian Freud at the Grand Palais is the first retrospective of the 19th century English landscape artist ever mounted in France, and it marks the first time a contemporary artist has been invited to curate a major show at the Grand Palais. As a teenager in exile from Germany in 1939, Freud attended art school near Constable's birthplace in Suffolk, although that didn't make him an admirer. He was all too familiar with Constable's most famous painting, The Hay Wain, because "it was everywhere in England, on tablecloths, on beer coasters ..."
Disdain turned to admiration only after Freud saw Constable's small, closeup painting of a tree trunk and tried to do one himself: "It was a catastrophe." Appropriately, Freud opens the show with Constable's tree trunk, followed by some 200 paintings, drawings and watercolors that trace the evolution of Constable's style, from delicate views in soft greens and grays to the saturated colors, stark chiaroscuro and dramatic skies of his later years. Among the artist's little-known portraits are his young wife, Maria Bicknell, and waist-length likenesses of three formidable matrons, Mrs. Edwards, Mrs. Pulham and Mrs. Tudor.
One of the most striking things about the Congo Gestures show at the Musée Dapper is the size of some of its 110 carved wooden nkisi figures. While most nkisi figures ritual religious statues are about 20-cm tall, this exhibit displays some reaching nearly 1.2 m as they stand, left hand on hip, right arm brandishing a dagger. In the elaborate vocabulary of Congolese sculpture, this is a gesture of strength, meant to ward off evil. Painted eyes covered with transparent glass signify clairvoyance; eyes nearly closed denote serenity and a transition from one world to another. This artistic lexicon is used throughout the Congo region, encompassing several dozen tribes in the modern nations of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola and Gabon.
The exquisite Musée Jacquemart-André, in the former mansion of 19th century banker Edouard André and his artist wife, Nélie Jacquemart, houses their exceptional collection of furniture, paintings, porcelain and objets d'art. The current temporary show, like the museum, is a small gem, although the title From Caillebotte to Picasso is a little misleading. Only one Picasso and two Caillebottes are on display. The rest of the 85 paintings and sculptures, all from the Oscar Ghez collection at Geneva's Petit Palais, cover modern art between 1870 and 1950: Impressionists, Neo-Impressionists, Nabis, Fauves, Cubists and Surrealists. Many of the names are second-tier Marie Bracquemond, Charles Angrand, Henri-Edmond Cross, Suzanne Valadon but most of their works (especially Bazille's Family Reunion on the Méric Terrace and Gauguin's bronze bas-relief Three Breton Women) are first-rate.
From the moment you walk in the door at the Musée de la Musique, to the sounds of Little Richard and Muddy Waters, it's obvious that Jimi Hendrix Backstage is going to be unlike anything you've experienced in an art gallery. The exhibit, the first devoted to a rock musician by a traditional European museum, opens with childhood memorabilia family photos, class photos, snapshots from the days before Hendrix became a rock god. Surprisingly good drawings and watercolors by the teenage Hendrix include witty sketches of Elvis Presley. In the next gallery, video screens, earphones, photographs, posters, costumes and guitars document the Big Four of Hendrix concerts: London, Monterey, Woodstock and the Isle of Wight. A soundproof room offers a full-volume eight-minute extract from a Berkeley concert that includes Voodoo Chile and Johnny B. Goode. And starting Nov. 27, you can see the ultimate Hendrix icon: what's left of the Fender Stratocaster that he famously burned at the Monterey Festival.
The annual Mois de la Photo festival has three themes this year: fashion, female photographers and images from the developing world. But the must-see show is Alexandra Boulat's, at the Galerie Debelleyme. The daughter of the distinguished Life and Paris Match photographer Pierre Boulat, Alexandra has made her own name with impassioned, poignant work in the war zones of Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo. Photographs from her just-published book Eclats de Guerre, (Editions des Syrtes) are an example of photo-journalism at its best, when the eye is an adjunct of the heart