Dijon’s Masterpiece of a Museum, Brilliantly Renovated

Brian T. Allen

These days, Paris is a center of negativity, so I decided to make a trip to France with “no Paris” as the foundational ingredient. Some of the finest museums in the country are in lovely small cities every serious art lover needs to visit. Now, I’m in Dijon in Burgundy to see its Museum of Fine Arts after its $75 million renovation. It reopened in May, so everything is sparkling and fresh. It’s fantastic.

Many American foundations and museums are pouring money down the drain on equity, inclusion, and accessibility schemes. Dumb-downers, finger-waggers, and campground counselors rule the roost. I’d suggest sending American curators to Dijon to see how to arrange and interpret a beautiful collection everyone wants to visit and from which anyone can learn.

The architects were Ateliers Lion Architectes Urbanistes. The massive overhaul affects about 45,000 square feet. It’s a renovation over about 15 years in two phases, opening old storage and office space for galleries. There’s an elegant courtyard. The space in front of the museum was pedestrianized. The facade’s windows were reopened. It’s a welcoming look and tells us that an inspiring, unique experience awaits.

I knew nothing about the art or history of medieval Burgundy. I’m a humble Americanist. The Hundred Years War was, well, long, and “très compliqué.” It’s hard, though, not to feel a frisson from Burgundian dukes with names like Jean sans Peur, Philippe le Bon, Philippe le Hardi, and Charles le Téméraire, men without fear, of infinite goodness, tough, and bold. “Blowhard,” “Phony,” and “Boob” are more apt for some of today’s leaders. Burgundy was richer than the French crown, and its cultural tentacles extended to Switzerland, Flanders, and Italy.

The first thing to love about the museum is its strong sense of place. Dijon is a beautiful city with a history reaching to Roman times. The collection has Egyptian caskets and Greek and Roman things, but it’s mostly French art, augmented by spectacular picks from Italy and the Low Countries.

Much of the art, especially the paintings and sculpture from the time the dukes ruled, has a local storyline. The first and foremost work of art is the building, or I should say “buildings” since the renovation touched at least four connected structures built over 600 years. These include the ducal residence, the old center of the ducal government, the late-18th-century art school and Academy of Science and the Arts, a 19th-century museum-specific building, and additions since then.

The museum dates to 1787, making it one of France’s oldest. Unifying and renovating the campus so well is a work of genius. Each part keeps core stylistic features. More or less, the art and spaces correspond chronologically so art and architecture reinforce each other. It’s a historic preservation project, too, with the best craftsmen involved.

I saw this to the most splendid effect in the stone gallery devoted to the tombs of “Le Hardi” and “Le Téméraire” and his duchess. They’re black marble, white marble, and polychrome and gilded alabaster. “Le Hardi’s” dates between 1381 and 1410, the other later. They occupy what was once the ducal dining room, with a fireplace fit for a duke, a balcony, and soaring ceiling. As the nobles once dined in splendor, their tombs lay in splendor. The cadavers? Well, the French revolutionaries weren’t kind to the dead. Like today’s Antifa, they’d trash the past. The tombs themselves were wrecked and restored years later.

Right: Tombeau de Philippe le Hardi, Inv. c. 1416, by Jean de Marville, Claus Sluter, Claus de Werve
(Courtesy © Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon/François Jay)
Left: Detail of Tombeau de Philippe le Hardi, Inv. c. 1416, by Jean de Marville, Claus Sluter, Claus de Werve
(Courtesy © Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon/François Jay)

Wealth and reach made for some fascinating art, strikingly expressive, with rich colors and narrative punch. Claus Sluter, from Haarlem in the Netherlands, sculpted the tomb’s dramatic and vivid set of mourners. Since the polychromed effigy of the duke is above eye level, we focus on the monks who process as if at the duke’s funeral. It’s a scene of remarkable emotion and pageantry.

This is art we’d call “medieval” but drapery, movement, expression are organic and convincing. So imbued with human grief are they, we understand that the medieval era, whose art is thought to be abstract, angular, flat, and ethereal, and the Renaissance, with its emphasis on plastic classical form, do not begin at any precise moment but elide. One era eases into the other over time and through so many tiny increments that we ask whether it’s best to drop boundaries altogether.

Spanish and French artists were involved along with Sluter, so we see an amalgam but never a messy, awkward one. Anyone who thinks about art in an intelligent, worldly way understands that artists and connoisseur patrons draw from everywhere. They’re natural multiculturalists, in the best sense of the word, which means they’re omnivores with good taste. Here, in Burgundy, patrons were hiring artists from all over the place.

Each gallery has a single wall panel making core points. There are a few basic art-history themes, like the centrality of religion, the rise of humanity and nature as life forces autonomous of God, and the 19th century’s emphasis on everyday life, high and humble. It’s curatorial intervention with the light touch and broad brush. The content is clear, sound, and digestible by anyone with a working brain. Nothing is forced. There’s no nauseating myth about political fads, as we’re seeing all the time in America. Touch screens are there, in some galleries, but they’re a quiet, subdued presence.

There’s history of Burgundy where it makes sense — the region after, say, 1500, lost status in the wave of mergers and acquisitions that made the French state. One storyline is always important: Why is this art in Dijon? Some came from area monasteries and churches suppressed and sacked after 1789. This is the case with the tombs, which were originally in a ducal church. Some was lent by the state in Paris. I was surprised to see how much came as gifts, among them the Granville collection, modern art collected by a Dijon couple given from the 1970s through the 1990s. The French are not known for philanthropy, but this is changing.

It’s good to see things by local artists such as Sophie and François Rude, a husband-and-wife team from Dijon. Sophie’s The Duchess of Burgundy Halted at the Gates of Bruges in 1436, from 1841, is a splendid history painting. The Rudes were among the many great Dijon artists who never hit the Paris art marquee — so they aren’t in the art-history canon of artists worth studying. Traditional French art historians were obsessed with Paris, and so were American and British art historians. When I was in school, they offered students the menu they knew, often leaving out the most exotic and counter-narrative things. Félix Trutat would have been another Courbet had he lived past age 24. He was from Dijon, a wonderful painter, but unknown.

The galleries are perfectly proportioned for looking. They’re mostly human scale, narrower and smaller than I expected, with pictures hung at eye level a bit closer to the floor than in American and British museums. They’re in your face. This is good. Early Burgundian art is fascinating. They loved rich, bright colors, Technicolor in look. Martyrdoms are niftily gruesome.

And the faces. I can’t remember a museum visit with so many idiosyncratic faces. I kept thinking, of all characters, of Norma Desmond. “We didn’t need dialogue,” she said when she screened a silent movie in Sunset Boulevard. “We had faces.” There’s the Roman emperor Augustus and a sibyl in a 1435 painting by Konrad Witz. It’s a big picture and part of an unusual altarpiece. Augustus asked the sibyl whether he should consent to be made a god. At that moment, they look up and see a vision of Jesus and Mary. Jesus had just been born. “Oy, vey,” the emperor seems to say. “Is it a bird . . . is it a plane . . . ” That moment of shock and revelation relies entirely on expression. It was a teachable moment. The Christian message was accessible to everyone, even the pagans, if they just kept their eyes and minds open.

In the same space, there are moments where the eye can wander from the engaging sculpture Saint John Asleep, from around 1515, to a window overlooking Dijon’s medieval turrets. He looks like a snoozing cat. Then there’s Sluter’s mourners, and, later, Nicolas Régnier’s David Triumphant, from 1625. David has the look of a boy merging into a man, with an excited “look what I found” expression, a teenager surprised by his own prowess. James Tissot’s Japanese Woman Bathing, from 1864 has a “come hither” look that needs to be bottled and sold.

Left: Japanese Woman Bathing, 1864, by James-Jacques-Joseph Tissot. Oil on canvas.
(Courtesy © Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon/François Jay)
Right: David Triumphant Holding the Head of Goliath, 1625, by Nicolas Régnier. Oil on canvas.
(Courtesy © Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon/François Jay)

Every object seems to have found a perfect place. Interpretation is jargon-free. The whirl of grinding axes is nowhere. Almost none of the objects has its own didactic wall label. The brilliant curators listened to Norma Desmond. Don’t take her advice on much else, but “we didn’t need dialogue” is a mantra to love. All the paintings have been cleaned, so everything looks good, not power-washed because we don’t want that, but with schmutz and goop gone.

I have only niggling criticisms, which I hesitate to make since the project is heroic in conception, scale, and achievement, but, being me, I’ll make them anyway. The museum was once a ducal palace. It’s grand civic architecture, but the entrance area feels like a hospital admissions desk. It’s white, antiseptic, and impersonal. It’s jarring to go from the lovely, sunny courtyard to this cramped, bureaucratic space. Eventually, the visitor gets to the grand staircase.

The museum layout is confusing, something everyone seems to acknowledge. As far as I know, though, no small children have disappeared without a trace. It’s easy to get lost, which is fine unless you’re looking for something.

The opening temporary show surveys new work by Yan Pei-Ming, a Chinese artist who lives in Dijon. He paints monochromatic portraits of famous people and riffs on well-known paintings like Goya’s Third of May, in red or gray big, slashing brushstrokes. He intervened in some of the galleries with his work, and it doesn’t play well with, say, the Duke of Burgundy’s tomb. A little goes a long way. He’s a good painter, but I would have skipped the repetitive show of his work in the new temporary exhibition space.

The people of Dijon and Burgundy should feel great pride in their glorious, reborn museum. It’s a total aesthetic masterpiece.

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