Exhibit at BMA displays 'icons' of modernism

November 22, 1992|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

As Brenda Richardson tells it, "The Blue Nude" has a lot of clout. Matisse's famous 1907 painting was one of 15 works the Baltimore Museum of Art lent to the Museum of Modern Art in New York for its current Matisse retrospective. In return, Ms. Richardson, BMA deputy director for art, wanted a show of masterpieces from MOMA's collection.

"I wanted to borrow as many as I could get away with of significant icons, pictures that are famous both as works of the artists and as works in MOMA's collection."

The result is the seven paintings and 10 drawings of "Picture Perfect: Icons of Modernism from the Museum of Modern Art, New York," opening at the BMA today. Among them are some of MOMA's best-known works, including Vincent van Gogh's "Starry Night," Henri Rousseau's "Sleeping Gypsy," Marc Chagall's "I and the Village" and Jackson Pollock's "Number 1, 1948," plus three drawings by Pollock, a painting and three drawings by Picasso and works by Cezanne, Edward Hopper, Georgia O'Keeffe and Charles Sheeler.

Richardson calls this haul "a tribute to 'The Blue Nude,' whose importance cannot be overstated. The understanding was, if 'The Blue Nude' was going to be loaned, so was 'Starry Night.' "

Why these particular works, however? They are impressive pictures all right, but, according to Richardson and BMA curator of prints, drawings and photographs Jay M. Fisher, who together chose the show, they add up to more than just a cocktail-party gathering of superstars.

"We wanted to show through these works how each artist is a thread in the history of modernism," Richardson says. "There was a desire to have a show that would make modernism accessible. We will show a coherent progression from Cezanne to Pollock."

The progression will be explained in a recorded tour, for which both curators created a text. A recent conversation with the two, together with excerpts from their text, show some of the ways in which they have tried to chart the contributions of the artists to the history of modernism. What follows is a combination of brief paraphrases and quotes based on the curators' thoughts on the individual works of art.

Unified canvas

Cezanne's painting of "The Bather" (about 1885), a solitary figure in a bare landscape, for instance, chooses a time-honored subject and takes it toward abstraction. Figure and background are very much the same in color and texture, which "unifies the canvas" and makes us "always aware that we are looking at a flat, two-dimensional surface," according to the curators. In addition, they say, "Brushwork and color and form have a powerful life of their own," and the figure emerges from them. "It comes into being because of the passion of the paint."

Picasso's "Bathers in a Forest" (1908) builds on the lesson of Cezanne and goes further: "In the Picasso, the subject has truly become secondary to the pattern made on the surface of the picture by the broken-down forms of figures and trees and rocks -- moving closer and closer toward abstraction," the curators say.

The monumental figures in the Picasso painting "Two Nudes" (1906) represent a major step toward that seminal 20th-century movement known as cubism, in which the subject is fragmented and shown from multiple points of view simultaneously. The results are shown in two subsequent cubist drawings, both called "Head," from 1909 and 1913.

Chagall's fantasy-like "I and the Village" (1911) shows how an artist combines the ideas of modernism with his own personal vision. It takes the latest ideas of its time -- including, say the curators, "the lesson of cubism, that you don't have to pay attention to time and space, and can put the image anywhere on the canvas you want" -- and combines them with Chagall's own personal memories of the Russian town of Vitebsk, in which he was born.

Rousseau's "The Sleeping Gypsy" (1897) is a different kind of combination of art historical ideas and painterly vision. Rousseau has been thought of as a naive painter, but the curators point out that he was self-taught, which does not necessarily mean naive: "[He] admired the French academic painters such as Gerome . . . and was every bit as skilled as those highly trained painters." In "Sleeping Gypsy," he combines that technique with a dream

like vision to create "a work of surrealism."

The van Gogh drawing "Street at Saintes-Maries" (1888) is the result of the artist's only visit to the Mediterranean, which he hoped would "liberate his color and make his drawing style more exaggerated," the curators say. He succeeded, as the heightened color of his subsequent paintings attests. The curators speak of the drama, the passion, the intensity of "Starry Night" as an example of van Gogh's expressive "manifestation of the inner being," which was to influence the 20th-century expressionist movement.

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