Immortalized on dorm room walls of every undergrad from here to Beijing, it could be said that Monet's water lilies have entered the dreaded realm of cliché. But in the late 19th century, his work was revolutionary. Critics in 1874 found dappled sunlight and thick swabs of bright paint painfully offensive, and those who slathered such rot on their canvases were relegated to the fringes of the art world.
But there are no water lilies in Birth of Impressionism, the new exhibit that opened at the De Young this week. Instead, there are turkeys, a surprising number of dead fish (still lifes aren't all chrysanthemums and lemons, people), cherubs riding dolphins, and naked women rising from seashells (as naked women are wont to do).
Borrowed from the Musee d'Orsay, these masterpieces are rarely seen without first purchasing a ticket to Paris. Just getting them to San Francisco required some serious dodging of volcanic ash - the last three shipments were delayed until the curators were faced with the ignominy of opening a huge exhibit with posters. But the gods of air travel relented and the final crates arrived just in time. Guy Cogeval, director of the Musee d'Orsay, says the paintings appear to even better advantage in the cleverly crafted De Young exhibit than they do in their native France - especially Monet's turkeys, whose wings and majestic wattles gleam in the bright space.
Gritty black and white photographs of Gallic architecture frame the doorways, giving a sense of Paris at the time - as does the open bottle of red wine on the table next to the men in Caillebotte's Floor Scrapers. Contrasting the lauded art of the time with the Impressionists' bold streaks of color (the blue bows up there were considered particularly injurious by the arbiters of good taste), the exhibit offers visitors a sense of context, and an understanding that the movements that change the world are the ones most resisted. Visit Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, and Degas in three dimensions to experience the palpable energy and joy they brought to their work. Posters just don't do them justice.
Through September 10 at the De Young. For more information, visit www.famsf.org.