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Musee d'Orsay / Orsay museum :

Times are over when the irritated Parisian wondered why they needed a new museum in a city already crawling in these institutions. Could he suspect that the Musee du Jeu de Paume, opened in 1947 to display the impressionist paintings from the Louvre museum, next to the light of the Tuileries would be packed and become much too small to house the constant growing collection? But sometimes different circumstances can end up to a magnificent ending. At the very moment that the “Direction of French museums” was looking desperately for now oxygen to display all these masterpieces, the enormous, ram shackled nave of the gare d’Orsay, only used for suburb transport, was doomed for destruction. The transfer for the paintings of the Jeu de Paume was decided.

But what was this gare d’Orsay and what is its story? The station was built in a record time, from 1898 until 1900 by architect Victor Laloux. For that epoch the construction was daring and the building was ready exactly on time for world fair of 1900. It was set just on the left bank side of the Seine in order that the passengers arriving from the south of France should be right away in the middle of the city. Wealthy passengers could stay in a large luxury hotel right next to the station, one of the last examples of “1900 eclectic-rococo-Napoleon III" But the station was only used during 30 years. The French railways switched to electricity in 1935 and the gare d'Orsay lost its importance. Trains became too long for the 135 meters long platforms that were too short and impossible to extend. The activity of the long distance trains from the south east returned naturally to the gare d'Austerlitz and Orsay was temporarily occupied by the theatre Renaud-Barrault, eternal vagabond. The luxury hotel continued for a while, lost star after star and had to close in 1970. The Orsay station, gigantic building, 32 m high and 140 m long was left to the rats. In 1962, the decay of the station was so terrible that Orson Welles used the place to shoot his movie "Le Proces" and Bertolucci a few scenes of "The Conformist”.

Plans for the conversion of the station into a museum exhibiting all aspects of art in the second half of the 19th century were put forward by the Pompidou government in l973. In effect, the Gare d'Orsay benefited from a revival of interest in the 19th century, which unfortunately came too late to save Baltard's Halles. A threat to demolish the station and replace it with gigantic hotel was fortunately averted and the museum project was taken in hand and promoted by President Giscard d'Estaing who set up a Public Institution to complete the works. This initiative was confirmed by President Mitterrand in 1981.

In l979 a team set up by ACT Architecture (Renaud Bardon, Pierre Colboc and Jean-Paul Philippon) was selected after an open competition to carry out the necessary structural works.

The Italian woman architect Gae Aulenti who had carried out the renovation of the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris and the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, was entrusted with the museum's interior design and decoration.
At the top of the building under the roof of the station and the old hotel are a number of broad galleries illuminated by natural light. The various hotel reception rooms have also been integrated to the museum, and the hotel restaurant now fills the same function for the museum. Everywhere, Laloux's cast iron pillars and stucco decorations were respected, restored and opened up to the view. The new structures were designed to leave a palpable impression of the old.
Six years on, the museum was inaugurated by President François Mitterrand on 1 December 1986.

Presented in chronological order on three floors, extensive collections draw from period 1848 to 1914, include all the fine, decorative and applied arts (painting, sculpture, architecture, artefacts, furnishing, cinema, photography, music, scenaries).

The Orsay museum bridged the gap between the collections Louvre museum collections and that at the museum of modern art at Pompidou Centre.

The Orsay museum is not only a place of exhibition for works of art. It is also a place for entertainment, contemplation and learning.

The Routard reminds us that Gaulenti was soon criticized by some, (I quote): denouncing the "pharaonism" (bad tongues even said "mussolinian style") and principally the 2 enormous blockhouses in the back. Just jealousy!! Let’s give Gae Aulenti the credit having succeeded to multiply the volumes and the architectural surprises: the visitor is not obliged to pass through dozens of identical galleries. And the displayed works have the advantage of 17000 square meter of display surface, zenithal and natural lighting.” (end of quote)
In next article I will give a few practical hints and begin a more detailed visit of the museum.

Bibliography: --Vie et histoire des arrondissements de Paris, ed.Hervas, 1985-1988, 20 volumes- Le piéton de Paris, by L.P. Fargue, ed.Gallimard 1997—Rive Gauche, une expérience unique, by Cl.Evrard, ed.Albin 1991--Guides du Routard 1998, ed.Hachette, Les 20 arrondissments de Paris, by Martine Constans, Renaissance du Livre 1998--Orsay museum in Parijs, by H.Witteveen, ed.Spectrum