Indeed, while the exhibitions do not dwell on Mitchell’s biography, there are glimpses of her out in the world. Throughout the vast corridors of the Frank Gehry-designed FLV are portraits of both artists; their lives overlapping by less than two years. (She was born in February of 1925; he died in December of 1926.) Monet interacts with the canvas at very close range and fully frontal. Mitchell’s stance is even more active, leaning with an arm outstretched as through taking off towards the canvas. He wears a proper shirt and tie covered by an artist’s smock. She projects a unisex look that is inadvertently and self-effacingly cool. In one late image, she wears an overshirt with faded gray jeans, Le Coq Sportif tennis shoes, and dark sunglasses—a look we might call normcore today. “There was a modesty behind her glasses, a timidity, even if she could also be very direct,” says Pagé.
Although the shows will prove dazzling to anyone who visits, they’re best seen without large crowds. A calmer setting is most conducive to feeling in communion with the art, to observing how certain colors emerge and recede, to experiencing the emotional dimensions of abstraction. (Incidentally, Mitchell’s evocation of memory taps into the approach of French writer Annie Ernaux, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature last week.) In one of the galleries is Monet’s Water Lilies (Agapanthus), a formidable triptych spanning nearly 43 feet that was purchased by three different museums beginning in 1956. One year earlier, art critic Clement Greenberg had written a reassessment of Monet, advancing the idea that he had anticipated modern American painting. Here, the exceptional work—reassembled for the first time in France—speaks powerfully to the FLV’s influence.
Around this point, Pagé notes “an osmosis between nature and the canvas.” She repeatedly describes Mitchell’s paintings as “sumptuous” and “marvelous,” pointing out how the artist combined opacity and transparency with a velocity that corresponded to the developing notion of action painting. “She had boundless energy,” says Pagé. “It was a mixture as much of psychological energy as physical energy. She released this extreme energy, this passion, at the same time as being extremely fragile.” By the time we reach the final gallery, where 10 bold landscapes from Mitchell’s epic La Grande Vallée cycle (1983-84) have been reunited for the first time since 1984, it becomes overwhelming to consider that she produced so many masterpieces without receiving broader acclaim while alive. “She wasn’t in fashion anymore in these years,” says Pagé. “It was Pop, or minimalism. The only thing that interested her was painting. And now, when we see her art today, it is so fresh, so full of life, so free.”