Of the many Museums of Fine Arts that were created in France in the 19thcentury, one of the most unique is the André Malraux Museum in Le Havre. Like much of that city, the former Le Havre Museum of Fine Arts was destroyed during the Allied bombing raids of 1944. Almost all of its sculptures were destroyed then, but most of its paintings had been preventively moved out of the museum and survived.
Today it is housed in an ultra-modern structure at the mouth of the port. Abundant natural daylight floods its interior galleries. Could there be a better setting for the world’s largest collection of the works of Eugene Boudin, the “Master of the Skies,” and the mentor of Claude Monet? Not likely. And what a collection: over 3800 works of his works, of which about 200 are exhibited. The rest are in storage for lack of sufficient exhibit space.
The exhibit of Boudin’s works is one of the most interesting parts of MuMA (as the museum is named), a wall that is about 50 feet long and 8 feet high on which a huge collection of Boudin’s works are displayed, bathed in natural light, the only setting in which he would produce his art. It is therefore the same light in which he wanted his works to be viewed. Walking along the wall, the visitor sometimes is tempted to ask whether the works on display are those of Boudin or of his protégé, Monet.
The resemblance is often riveting, but make no mistake: it is all Boudin, about whom Monet once said, “Everything I know about painting I owe to Eugene Boudin.” He did not exaggerate, despite the fact that he built on his master’s techniques and broke new ground that eventually led all the way to sheer abstract art.
MuMA (short for Museum Malraux) also displays first class works of Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro, Johan Jongkind, Edgar Degas and Claude Monet. Its Portrait of Nini Lopez is monumental testimony of Renoir’s passion and talent for portraying beautiful women. The museum has been the beneficiary of numerous donations of private collections and also possesses a compelling collection of both Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works, including: Guillaumin, Cross, Raoul Dufy, Vallotton, Matisse, and Van Dongen.
You will also be delighted to see a few works of Delacroix, Corot, Millet and Courbet, and a handful of Old Masters.
One of the hazards of seeing art in large museums, such as the Louvre and Orsay museums is that there are so many works on display that even if you are determined to spend your time on a handful of select works, by the time you reach them, you are already feeling the effects of what I call museum over-load. That is the oppressing feeling of having over-whelmed your senses and your ability to appreciate what you are seeing because you have already seen too much art. MuMA is a gift to those who are susceptible to this affliction. You can be in and out efficiently, having had enough time to digest what you have seen, and without feeling over-powered.
I am not a huge fan of contemporary architecture, but I find this museum displays its collections in a very friendly and agreeable way. Much of the city of Le Havre is oppressively devoid of charm, and huge swathes of it were re-built after having been flattened by Allied bombardment in WWII, at a time when the need for shelter was so great that expenditure on beautiful design and aesthetics apparently went out the window. MuMA compensates for some of that and is a wonderfully rewarding experience in the middle of an otherwise very barren urban setting.