17 June 2018

Short Takes: Some Art Shows

[I seem to be on something of an art jag on Rick On Theater just now (“Akunnittinni: A Kinngait Family Portrait” on 15 January; “Art New York 2018” on 13 May; “Where We Are: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection, 1900-1960” on 12 June), so I thought I’d dig up some comments on past art shows that are too brief to post on their own (they were parts of longer reports mostly about theater) and collect them in a “Short Takes”—something I haven’t done in a long time now—and post them for a look back.  (The dates on each section below are the dates I wrote the original report; they are not necessarily the dates of the exhibits or my visit.  Multiple dates indicate I wrote the complete report in installments.)  One of the following mini-reports is on Edward Hopper, an exhibit I saw at the National Gallery of Art in 2008 and which I mentioned in my recent post on the Whitney Museum’s Where We Are.  Another segment below is on the Barnes Collection when it was at its original home in Merion, Pennsylvania, before it moved to Philadelphia.  I haven’t seen the collection since the move, so I don’t know if the lay-out duplicates the initial set-up, mandated by founder Albert C. Barnes, but that arrangement of the art was unique, to say the least, and I though it would be interesting to record my impressions of that peculiar display.  ~Rick]

9 & 12 January 2003

Pierre Bonnard: Early and Late at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. (22 September 2002-19 January 2003), is interesting, but less so than its size would suggest.  It’s a big show, installed on three floors of the gallery (two flights of stairs to climb), and covers his paintings, etchings and prints, posters and illustrations, sketches, and photos.  That was part of the interesting aspect—that this artist, who really began as a dilettante, explored so many different forms of expression, including the very new technique of photography.  (The photos on display were all from around 1900—some original prints and some new prints from old negatives.) 

There were works from his earliest days right through the end of his life, but the most interesting works for me were his prints and etchings.  These were mostly small—though there was a wonderful three-panel screen (he did several screens, inspired, apparently, by the Japanese practice) of scenes from the Paris street.  Many of his prints were no more than four colors—a practice he experimented with frequently.  Bonnard (1867-1947) was also one of the first “graphic artists” and he got his professional start making advertising posters (for champagne, for instance), some of which resemble the famous theater posters of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.  He also did illustrations for books and was one of the very first graphic artists to use text as part of the artwork—not just the content, but the style.  Bonnard’s paintings were pretty much the least interesting part of this show. 

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11-13 May 2004

A small show, The Cubist Paintings of Diego Rivera: Memory, Politics, Place, was at the National Gallery of Art’s East Building (4 April-25 July 2004): an exhibit of Diego Rivera’s cubist paintings.  Rivera (1886-1957) went to Paris in the 1920s to study contemporary art on a stipend from the government from his home state in Mexico.  He was in the circle that included Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Marcel Duchamps, and others, and he began trying out all the current styles, including Cubism, for brief periods, trying to find his own voice.  None of these experiments lasted very long, and there weren’t many cubist works in the show—and most of them were interesting only as curiosities the way Picasso’s realistic works as a young artist are.  They merely contrast with the more identifiable works of the maturer artists—in Rivera’s case, the murals and Mexican history and folklore he worked with for most of his career.

*  *  *  *
21-25 August 2006

On Wednesday, 16 August 2004, my mother and I went down to the East Building of the National Gallery to see Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris (16 July-15 October 2006).  Rousseau (1844-1910) isn’t among my favorite artists; in fact, I find his paintings curious without being really compelling.  After reading the Washington Post review, however, I found him an interesting socio-artistic phenomenon.  First, he was unschooled as an artist.  He was a weekend duffer, so to speak, until he retired from his job as a customs clerk at 49—he was known in the art world as Le Douanier (the customs agent)—when he took up painting full time.  His aim was to be accepted by the Paris art establishment, which was committed to Realism, but he failed completely. 

He was, however, embraced by the avant garde, the upstart Impressionists and their literary confrères (Guillaume Apollinaire; Alfred Jarry, who gave him his nickname).  Picasso bought several of Rousseau’s paintings, as did others among the new, young artists and writers—whom Rousseau rejected.  (He found Matisse’s work “horribly ugly.”)  The irony is too much.  The fact seems to be that Rousseau really stumbled onto his naïve style and bold forms—he was trying to paint Realism and didn’t have the skill.  By sheer coincidence, he was doing naturally what the Impressionists were trying to do, and they had a fondness for “primitive” art.  They usually found this in far-off cultures like Africa, but in Rousseau, they saw their very own, homegrown primitive.  (All those jungle paintings, which were his most popular and are his most recognizable today, are the products of his imagination and his visits to natural history museums and international exhibitions or from magazine illustrations.  Rousseau never left France, and rarely left Paris.  His notion of the jungle wasn’t close to accurate—or he took tremendous liberties—since he combined images that don’t belong together, such as an American Indian fighting with a gorilla—in the rain forests of, what?  Illinois?) 

The Post even poses a provocative paradox: “Rousseau’s best paintings are undeniably great . . . .  But that begs the question of whether the man who made them was also a great artist.”  When he died penniless and was buried in a pauper’s grave, Picasso and fellow artist Robert Delaunay paid for a better plot, Apollinaire wrote a poem for the headstone, and sculptor Constantin Brancusi engraved it.  I don’t care much about his art, but Rousseau’s story is wonderful.

As part of the exhibit, the gallery is displaying many of the sources of Rousseau’s fantasies—a stuffed lion attacking an antelope from a natural history museum, illustrations in nature magazines, and so on.  Among these are two large bronze statues by Emmanuel Frémiet (described in the Post as “a hack realist”).  One of them is called Gorilla Carrying Off a Woman (1887), and that’s just what it depicts.  It looks exactly like a scene from King Kong (except that the woman is more Jane Russell than Fay Wray).  The museum labels and panels don’t say if this was in any way connected to the movie—say an inspiration for it—but you have to wonder if someone like the screenwriter or the director, whoever originally conceived of the movie, hadn’t seen the sculpture.  I mean, it’s just too exact.

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17 January 2007

Mom and I drove over to Charm City (I don’t know, either) to see an exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art and got my cousin, who lives in Baltimore, to meet us there.  The show, A View Toward Paris: The Lucas Collection of 19th-Century French Art (1 October–31 December 2006), had gotten an interesting review in the Washington Post and was going to close on the last day of the year, so we went over on Thursday, 28 December 2006, on what turned out to be a beautiful afternoon. 

George A. Lucas (1824-1909) was the heir to a Baltimore papermaking fortune who made a trip to Paris in 1857 and ended up staying 52 years, until his death.  He became an art collector, both for himself and as agent for others back in the U.S (including Duncan Phillips, whose art became the basis for the Phillips Collection in Washington; William and Henry Walters, who formed the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore; and William Corcoran, founder of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in D.C.).  Lucas was instrumental in bringing many of the late-19th-century painters on the Paris art scene to the attention of American collectors and critics.  But he had one peculiarity in retrospect (though it wouldn’t have seemed so at the time): he liked the art that everyone else liked, including the contemporary critics—the mainstream art, not the avant-garde work by the Impressionists and the Post-Impressionists.  As a result, the works and artists he championed weren’t the ones that later went down in art history as the greats of the era and have emerged as the icons of modern art. 

This isn’t to say Lucas collected bad art or supported mediocre artists—they were the stars of their day, in fact, and the point of the exhibit, in a way, is a reappreciation of these neglected painters who are often totally unknown today—undeservedly so, according to Post critic Blake Gopnik.  (Gopnik points out that one artist, August Molin, “doesn’t appear once in the 32,600 pages of the Grove Dictionary of Art, and even a thorough Google search comes up with all of two hits that have anything to do with him.”  He suggests that “his impressive walk-on part in the Lucas show will get some graduate student to dig deeper.”)  Since most of the works fall into the Realism and Romanticism categories—not my favorite styles of painting—and only a few barely touch on the emerging Impressionist challenge, the medium-sized show (200 works) became a little repetitive for me, but there were certainly some charming pieces.  (Nothing for a Midnight Shopping Trip, though.) 

What’s more, a number of the artists in the exhibit were the teachers of the emerging Impressionists or had been influential on their development.  In addition, the comparison of the works in Lucas’s collection—he ended up with 300 paintings and almost 20,000 prints—with the more famous works of the late 19th century not only shows a little of the development of the groundbreaking innovation that was Impressionism but also raises your appreciation for those iconoclastic artists and their work. (Impressionism is one of my favorite styles of art.)  It wasn’t a great art exhibit, and not to my mind as interesting as the Picasso and American Art at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City a few months ago (28 September 2006–28 January 2007), but it was more than pleasant, and had its virtues.  (One curiosity, because Lucas developed relationships with many of the artists whose works he bought, was that some of the painters presented him with their palettes—some just as they had been used for work and others with art added as a lagniappe.)

Besides the art, Mom, my cousin, and I had lunch in the museum restaurant.  And, since we were in Baltimore, I got to have crab cakes from an authentic Maryland kitchen!  Unless you’ve had crab cakes from within shouting distance of the Chesapeake, you haven’t lived!!  (If you’ve had them anywhere else, conversely, you have no idea what you’re missing.)

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THE BARNES COLLECTION (Merion, Pennsylvania)
20 August/20 September/27 September 2007

[The Barnes Collection reopened at its new building in Philadelphia on 19 May 2012.]

On my return to New York City on Friday, 17 August 2007, after a visit with my mother in Washington, Mom decided to accompany me so we could make a detour to Merion, Pennsylvania, the suburb of Philadelphia where the Barnes Collection is located (until they move to Philadelphia as they plan).  In part because of the way Albert C. Barnes set his foundation up and the restrictions he put on it in his will, this is also a confusing collection—although the quality of the art makes up some for the oddness of the display.  (I won’t go into all the peculiarities of the legal set-up—it’s been in the news for the past several years as the board has sought permission to move from Merion into Philadelphia—but he mandated that no painting could be moved, either on the walls or from the building.  This is why the courts are involved in the proposed move, which the museum’s directors feel is necessary to increase attendance and income in order to maintain the collection.) 

Barnes (1872-1951), who became wealthy from a pharmaceutical invention he made in the early 20th century, also became interested in art, especially modern art (though he also has an extensive collection of African pieces) and began collecting here and in Europe at the turn of the last century into the years before WWII.  Now, some guys who do that end up with awful pieces by some of the most famous artists of the modern canon, but Barnes had excellent taste and he has a beautiful collection of Monets, Cézannes, Prendergasts (both brothers), Modiglianis, Lipschitzes (mostly sculptures), Klees, Picassos, Rouaults, and so on. 

But the paintings are mounted on walls in no order or thematic arrangement whatsoever, and they are hung from about waist height to about 10-12 feet off the ground.  (Mother said that when she first went there years ago, they were hung all the way to the ceiling.)  They’re not labeled (though the artists’ last names are sometimes on the frames) so the only way to identify the paintings (none of the sculptures or other objects—there are some tapestries and a lot of furniture pieces—are identified at all) is to go to the small placards placed in each room.  These are a photograph of each wall (or, when the wall is long and full of art, half the wall) with each picture frame numbered.  Below the photo of the wall layout is a list with corresponding numbers that names the paintings, the artists, the dates, and the media, like the wall labels on most other museums. 

Since there are at least four different layouts in each room, and there are several copies of each placard, you have to shuffle through all of them to find the wall you want to look at, then find the next one, and so on.  Not only is this an annoying task, it’s also time-consuming; the visit to each gallery takes at least half again as long as it otherwise would.  The galleries—there are two floors of art; Barnes had 2500 pieces when he died in 1951—are also dimly lit and there are no lights on each painting.  (This is not a building converted from a residence or anything; it was built, albeit in the ’20s, to be an art gallery.)  As I said, if it weren’t for the quality of the man’s art, the Barnes would be a monumentally frustrating place to visit. 

*  *  *  *
            4 February 2008           
(21 December 2007-4 January 2008)

[I quoted from these comments in my report on the Whitney’s Where We Are.]

Im not really a fan of Edward Hopper, but Ill give a very brief (well, superficial anyway) run-down of the National Gallery exhibit nonetheless.  A fairly large show was at the East Building of the NGA on the Mall.  We went down to see Edward Hopper on Boxing Day, 26 December 2008, and encountered a very long line snaking around the second floor of the East Building.  The line kept growing even as we stood debating whether we should switch over to the West Building and give J. M. W. Turner a try; but fortunately, it moved quickly and we spent a pleasant-enough afternoon walking through the several galleries housing the 110 works of the show. 

Hopper (1882-1967) doesnt move me; I find his work cold and emotionless.  His lack of human figures in most of his paintings leaves them bloodless and vacant.  Even in the works with people, they are distant and alone—unengaged.  I know that this is what Hoppers fans find intriguing in his work, and its surely a fascinating psychological insight into his art, but it makes his paintings an intellectual curiosity to me, not an artistic experience.  He was captivated by architecture and the way light and shadow played on buildings and houses and he could paint the same one from different angles and at different times of the day over and over to try to capture the various ways the light fell, but this is a study to me, not an aesthetic evocation. 

Hopper painted at the same time that many other American artists were turning away from figuration and experimenting with abstraction and expressionism (and, er, Abstract Expressionism), but he fiercely resisted the shift and became an icon among younger and later artists of figurative painting.  (Not surprisingly, I guess, I am a fan of abstract art; I know some commentators—not necessarily art critics, however—see that movement as a fraud on gullible viewers, arguably most famously the late Morley Safer’s “Yes . . . but Is It Art?” segment on CBS’s 60 Minutes on 19 September 1993, but Ive always found the works exciting and moving, emotional and expressive.)  So I found the show, called simply Edward Hopper, pretty much just a curiosity; there was nothing I wanted to come back for on a Midnight Shopping Trip. 

This doesnt mean that I didnt learn anything, however.  The earliest works in the exhibit were etchings; I never knew Hopper did any kind of print work, and the 12 small etchings on show here, though they all displayed the same focus on empty cityscapes and lonely figures, were somehow more interesting to me than the later large oils.  (Hopper also painted watercolors in his early days.)  I will also add that theres a strange kind of theatricality in Hoppers paintings—not action or drama, but his interiors especially look like stage sets, a kind of set designers rendering. 

Theres an implied plot in some of them.  People sitting, essentially isolated even in a group, in a diner, viewed from the street through a long expanse of window (Nighthawks, 1942), make you wonder what might have just happened—or might be about to happen—in that single lighted room on a dark, empty street.  The woman, apparently an usher, leaning against a wall in a near-empty movie theater (New York Movie, 1939)whats she thinking about while the movies unreeling on the screen just out of her vision?  But these are intellectual curiosities, not emotionally-engaging ones.  A Hopper play would likely be one in which people sit around speaking in low tones—but only occasionally, leaving most of the play to silence.

[I mentioned in passing a “Midnight Shopping Trip” above a couple of times.  As regular ROTters will recall, this was my mother and my private joke, used as a benchmark for art shows we liked, suggesting a return after closing to pick up the pieces we liked.] 

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