Beyond the Stars
The Mystical Landscape from Monet to Kandinsky at the Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Beyond the Stars
The Mystical Landscape from Monet to Kandinsky at the Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Beyond the Stars
The Mystical Landscape from Monet to Kandinsky at the Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Beyond the Stars
The Mystical Landscape from Monet to Kandinsky at the Musée d'Orsay, Paris

In the heart of Paris, at the iconic Musée d'Orsay, visitors are invited to delve into a spiritual experience with masterpieces by some of the greatest modern painters. Beyond the Stars. The Mystical Landscape from Monet to Kandinsky is open to the public from the 14 March - 25 June 2017. In partnership with the Art Gallery of Ontario the exquisitely curated show examines in over 90 paintings how in the late 19th and early 20th centuries Mysticism led artists of the Western world to explore spiritual and divine experiences through the natural world. Advances in science, the rise of positivism and the imminent approach of the First World War led people to question religion and the existence of a superior Divinity. The curators of Beyond the Stars show that despite their increasingly alienating world, artists rediscovered their own personal spiritual and religious experiences in the natural environment and expressed these in some of the most iconic landscape paintings known to us. The collection is brought to us from high profile lenders such as the Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Art Institute of Chicago, Tate Britain and the National Galleries of Scotland and Canada among others.

Coming from the bustle of Musée d'Orsay's vast, light halls filled with marble statues and artefacts, stepping into the dimly, almost mystically lit, exhibition rooms of Beyond the Stars the visitor is immediately forced to slow down and to pause. Each of the exhibition's seven rooms examines the pursuit of spirituality through a different lens, starting with the first room calling the observer to Contemplation. And barely two steps into the exhibition the visitor immediately stands still, captivated by Claude Monet's masterpieces: the iconic vibrantly glowing haystacks (1890-1891), the four variations on Le Cathedral de Rouen (1893) and the grand canvases of his famous water lilies (1916-1919).

This first section is completed by enchanting Impressionist and Expressionist highlights of exceptional quality by the modern masters Henri Le Sidaner, Gustav Klimt, Odilon Redon and Wassily Kandinsky. The viewer might wonder if in Vincent van Gogh's Les Oliviers (1889) the massive bright cloud actually floats like a divinity over the energetically painted olive trees.

Moving on, works by Paul Gauguin and the Nabis united in two rooms entitled Sacred Wood and The Divine in Nature, express in a more direct way the painters' search for the spiritual, featuring religious figures and symbols, angels, saints or scenes directly taken from the Bible such as Gauguin's celebrated Vision after the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) painted in Pont-Aven in 1888. Taken from the Old Testament, Gauguin the scene as a vision seen by women who have just left a church service and are seemingly still highly inspired by it. This powerful religious motif predominantly set on a red background is juxtaposed with the vibrant blues and greens of van Gogh's The Sower, which was painted in the same year. Both paintings face each other in the exhibition space as if they were to invite the visitor to communicate between both, as the two painters did in the year these masterpieces were completed. Working with van Gogh in 1888 Gauguin advised the latter to focus less on reality but instead to concentrate on imagination, which this masterpiece clearly does. For his time van Gogh already developed a very modern viewpoint on religion. Nature as well as human history symbolise 'God' and beliefs were expressed through human emotion, in particular those of the lower social classes. Dismissing Gauguin biblical imagery, van Gogh's lonely figure sowing a wheat field stands as a religious and spiritual metaphor, which reoccurred in numerous variations on this theme. Perhaps this underlying powerful expression of the mystical element in nature led the curators to choose this masterwork as the exhibition's poster child.

The visitor's journey moves on and focuses now on the The Idea of the North in which hillside views, vast skies and mountain peaks carry strong symbolic images of the artists' search for the spiritual. The mystical power of Night also receives a dedicated room with masterpieces, centred on van Gogh's Starry Night Over the Rhone (1888). Rarely seen outside Sweden, the large-scale night visions of Stockholm, such as Riddarfjärden in Stockholm, 1898, or Hornsgatan at Night, 1902 by the Swedish painter Eugène Jansson, powerfully convey the mystical and melancholic effect the hours of night carry.

To fully understand the scope of the spiritual power of nature, the section entitled Ravaged Landscapes confronts the visitor with the transcendent energy that desolated, shattered and destroyed fields of war still convey. The Canadian Army hired A. Y. Jackson to report and paint in the First World War, and the curators have chosen his striking images of destruction which invite the visitor to feel the mystical presence in the glowing gas attacks in the wasteland of Livien (1918).

The exhibition finishes by taking the visitor from the worldly to the transcendental – to the Cosmos. Now Georgia O'Keeffe's abstract paintings of cloud formations capture our full attention, Wenzel Hablik's Kristallschloß im Meer (1914) fascinates us completely and his Sternenhimmel Versuch (1909) of glowing planets dances in a vortex in front of our eyes. The masterworks of Beyond the Stars. The Mystical Landscape from Monet to Kandinsky still move us as deeply today as they did 100 years ago, when the modern masters took up their brushes to create them. Finally, before exiting the exhibition we have a chance to glance at Edvard Munch's The Sun (1909), where a powerful sun seems to embrace the entire painting and to reach out to the observer. After Oslo experienced the horrendous massacre caused by Anders Breivik in 2011, this painting was publicly displayed and people could find condolence in contemplating this powerful work.

by Christiane Gorzalka, Junior Cataloguer,
Impressionist & Modern Art, London