Debussy the enigma

Rebecca Franks explores an exhibition about Debussy and his inspirations in Paris

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There’s a telling portrait of Debussy from May 1894 that’s currently hanging in a Paris museum. The photo’s edges are crackled; the picture a touch blurred. All we can see are his eyes, nose, moustache, the top part of his chin. He’s looking away, with an elusive expression. To be sure there are many other portraits of the great French revolutionary, but this image, taken by the writer and poet Pierre Louÿs, sticks in my mind – Debussy: the enigma.

It’s part of an illuminating exhibition in the Musée de l’Orangerie – home to Monet’s Nymphéas cycle of water lily paintings – entitled Debussy, la musique et les arts. I joined the crowds earlier this week to experience something of the vivid artistic world in which Debussy worked. This, after all, was a composer who said of himself that he loved pictures nearly as much as music. And we’re not talking the easy ‘impressionist’ tag that’s often associated with him. Debussy was immersed in a world of painters, poets and writers that he either knew in person or in painting or word, encompassing Turner, Whistler, Mallarmé (below in a portraint by Manet), Camille Claudel, André Gide, to name a few.

MallarméThe collection looks chronologically at various aspects of Debussy’s artistic interests. To give you a flavour, these included Japanese woodcuts – particularly by Hiroshige and Hokusai, whose The Great Wave graces the cover of the first edition of La mer; ancient Greek art, an interest fuelled both by the spoils of French excavations in Athens exhibited in the Paris World Fairs, and the Greek vases in the Louvre, immortalised in the first of Debussy’s Préludes, 'Danseuses de Delphes'. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting of The Blessed Damozel, with its melancholic auburn-haired woman observing her earth-bound lover, from the heavens, dominates one section. It’s an interesting insight into the inspiration for Debussy’s early cantata La damoiselle élue, based on Rossetti’s poem on the same subject.

Particularly striking is the part dedicated to Debussy’s stage works, of which he began many and finished few. Pelléas et Mélisande, his only complete opera, based on the Symbolist writer Maurice Maeterlinck’s play, was pivotal in his career. I’ve always thought of it as an opera of half-lights and forest murmurings, but here, Marianne Stokes’s colourful, autumunal imagining of Mélisande, wearing a russet dress, and Edvard Munch's black-and-white prints  ‘attraction, separation and jealousy’ suggested other mood and interpretations. Elsewhere, the seductive set designs by the Ballets Russes’s star designer Léon Bakst for the musical mystery play Le martyre de Saint-Sébastien and the ballet Jeux were a colourful highlight.

Debussy’s friendships with the composer Ernest Chausson, painter Henry Lerolle, and councillor of state Arthur Fontaine are also put in the spotlight thanks to paintings by an assortment of artists. Patrons of both Debussy and the artist Maurice Denis, this trio helped the composer in his years of struggle before Pelléas. These relationships bore artistic as well as financial fruit. It’s a tangled web of inspiration and influence. For example: Debussy dedicated three piano Images to one of Lerolle’s daughters Yvonne (left, painted by Maurice Denis). Nicknamed ‘Mélisande’s little sister’, she also posed for Renoir and was photographed by Degas, an artist Debussy particularly admired.

In writing, at least, I’ll speed past the canvases by Monet, Manet and Turner and head to the end of exhibition. It turns to Debussy’s later years, when his style saw a fragmentation of melody, timbre and rhythm, and when he was distancing himself from the evolving art world. Here, the curators suggest connections between Debussy’s music and both the Russian painter Vassily Kandinsky, and the Czech artist František Kupka, who sought to achieve ‘chromatic harmony through a fusion with music in works like Fugue in two colours.

And these imaginative suggestions, for me, were part of the joy of this excellent exhibition. Just as Debussy’s music is full of evocative sounds and colours, stirs the imagination, and hints at layers of meaning, this art collection was stimulating and enriching. These were the pictures and people Debussy knew and might have known. These paintings, this pottery, these handwritten scores are what those eyes could have been glancing at. But somehow, as I stepped back out into the rain-soaked Jardins des Tuileries, I couldn't help feel that, despite the huge amount we do know about him, there was something transient and dreamlike about having been immersed in Debussy's world.  Debussy the enigma remains.

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