Walking downstairs into the special exhibit at the Legion of Honor, I did not get what I expected: walls covered in exquisite Edgar Degas paintings with a handful of other museum-goers milling about. Instead, what greeted me was a vision of pastels centered around an unexpected theme: hats. Not just any hats, but beautiful 19th century decorative hats and bonnets, antiquated symbols of social class, complete with bird plumes and bunches of flowers.
The Degas exhibit was centered around the Paris millinery (hat-making) trade, which proved to be a great inspiration to the painter’s later works. According to the museum, all of his millinery-inspired paintings were still in his studio when he died in 1917. Featuring several well-preserved hats along with richly colored works by Degas and his contemporaries, the exhibit was certainly impressive.
Not only was it pleasing to look at, but it also functioned as a commentary on the juxtaposition between the grandeur of the hats and the hard labor of the women who made the hats, called milliners.
While a variety of other respectable artists’ work appeared in the gallery, it was easy to pick out Degas’ paintings based on his spectacular use of pastels, soft brush strokes and light, which gave the paintings an airy and ethereal effect. Captured in his paintings was the simple elegance of society women who tried on the hats in shops, as well as the exhaustion radiating from the milliners as they completed their tasks.
Several people stopped to crowd around a large framed piece featuring a milliner in an olive dress, lost in concentration while working on a hat. What drew in the audience, besides its enormity, was the painting’s subdued yet lively tones, and Degas’s ability to make the ribbons and flowers appear so delicate and fluffy. While other artists took more realistic approaches to portraying the milliners, using hard lines and sharp edges, the allure of Degas’s work lies in its graceful imperfection.
Another standout was a portrait by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, featuring a young girl with tumbling brown hair in an exquisite wide-brimmed hat, trimmed with red ribbon and bows. Renoir’s style appeared similar to Degas’s, with the same light and delicate feel.
Scattered throughout the exhibit were more cartoon-like drawings and diagrams of late-19th century women in hats, offering variety amongst the countless pastel paintings. However, what impressed me the most about the exhibit was the museum’s ability to arrange a variety of artworks and artifacts around a seemingly unimportant topic and bring it to life. The paintings throughout the museum tell a story of style, sophistication, struggle and status while entrancing audiences with their gentle colors.
However, if impressionism and millinery aren’t for you, there are other exhibits at the Legion of Honor that are sure to grasp your attention and interest.
Peculiar yet intriguing sculptures made by British artist Sarah Lucas in her “Good Muse” exhibit accompany the classic works of Auguste Rodin in the Centenary Installation, marking 100 years since his death. Lucas’ strange, erotic and very modern works, which make eye-catching centerpieces in many rooms on the top floor, sharply juxtapose the timeless awe-inspiring statues by Rodin, including “The Three Shades.” This statue, one of Rodin’s most famous pieces, was originally incorporated into “The Gates of Hell,” a massive bronze doorway covered in infernal carvings and protruding figures. According to the museum, the fingers of the men in “The Three Shades” are pointing down towards the words “Abandon hope all ye who enter here” when mounted atop the doorway.
While Lucas’ work is definitely not for everyone, it offers a bit of humor and a fresh perspective amongst the old statues. Her works of art often include plaster models of body parts, or the use of strange objects, such as a washing machine, to help portray her message. Lucas’s work is purposely paired with Rodin’s to create a bit of controversy amongst rather traditional sculptures. As put by one poster on the wall, “Tapping into our complex and often anxious relationship with the naked body, especially when considered in relation to the desires of others, the exhibition emphasizes the erotic undercurrent in Rodin’s work, often just barely veiled by biblical and mythological subject matter.” However, Rodin’s work doesn’t need the extra humor to be impressive.
If you’re looking for a cultural way to spend a free weekend day, at least one of the Legion of Honor’s many exhibits are worth visiting. While the Degas exhibit is the most special and spectacular, it comes at a hefty extra price of $13 per person on top of the regular museum fee, which is $6 for a student with a valid ID. For those on a budget, however, you won’t be disappointed by the various works of art throughout the top floor. Whichever exhibit you want to see most, the Legion of Honor offers a variety for every person to enjoy.