Marvelous modernism in 'Picture Perfect'


November 24, 1992|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

You have to give the Baltimore Museum of Art a lot of credit for "Picture Perfect." You also have to wonder why, having done so much so well, it failed to make the education component of this show as good as all the rest.

In terms of works of art, it's hard to see how it could be much better; and even doubting Thomases such as I will have to admit that it holds together as art history.

When the BMA agreed to lend 15 works to the Museum of Modern Art's Matisse retrospective, there was a price: the loan of some of MOMA's treasures in return.

When the list was announced -- seven major "icons" of modernism, from Cezanne's "The Bather" through van Gogh's "Starry Night" and Rousseau's "Sleeping Gypsy" to Picasso's "Two Nudes" and Pollock's "Number 1, 1948" (plus 10 drawings) -- it seemed a great opportunity had been lost for the sake of crowd pleasing.

Instead of putting together an instructive show on one or two aspects of modernism, the museum, it seemed, had chosen a bunch of superstars. No matter how exciting it would be to have them come visit, the result would be a big-name orgy covering so much art historical ground that it couldn't possibly be made coherent.

Well, it is nice to have them come visit. To be presented with such pictures as "Starry Night" and "Sleeping Gypsy" is an opportunity, all right. Sure, we have seen them in endless reproductions, but the difference between a reproduction of a work of art and the real thing is like the difference between being told about an ice cream cone and eating one.

Sure, many of us may have seen some or all of these paintings at MOMA, but we probably haven't spent the time with them we should. The context of a small show such as this offers the opportunity to linger.

Probably no two works benefit more from lingering than those at both ends. Cezanne's "Bather" becomes more abstract the more you look at it. And Pollock's big painting, especially with three attendant drawings that show how he worked, grows less formidably arcane and more human.

And as the organizers of the show, BMA curators Brenda Richardson and Jay M. Fisher, have explained it, Pollock makes perfect sense as well. For they have put together a recorded tour that does indeed connect the dots, and show mainstreams of modern art flowing through these works.

We have Cezanne taking an age-old subject and pushing it toward abstraction through his emphasis on the picture plane and on paint. We have van Gogh's use of what in other hands would be a peaceful night scene to create an intense expression of personal emotion. We have, in no fewer than four Picasso works, the breakdown of the figure and the creation of cubism. We have Chagall's use of modernism to transform a traditional story, and Rousseau's use of traditional technique to anticipate modernism.

We have, in three works by Charles Sheeler, Edward Hopper and Georgia O'Keeffe, examples of deceptively simple subject matter used to reveal deep strains of anxiety, both personal and societal, about individuality, alienation, relationships between the sexes, violence.

And finally, with Pollock we have the culmination of so much that has come before, including surrealism, expressionism, abstraction, anxiety, and, not least, the use of inspiration from many sources to create a work that is original and American.

The one way in which this show does not succeed -- and in which itsfailure seems to be positively willful -- is in its educational function. Having gone to all the trouble to compose an excellent recorded tour, the curators have then created a brochure and wall labels that are depressingly inadequate.

To take one example, the recorded tour is marvelous about the Cezanne, explaining how the artist approaches abstraction, what he's doing with figure and background and paint and the picture plane. But what do we get on the wall label that accompanies the painting? That the bather is a traditional subject, it was one of Cezanne's favorite, the painting was based on a photograph. The brochure says nothing about it.

To be fair, not every work in the show is treated so badly. But the effect of what the museum has done -- or rather not done -- is that the museum-goer who does not bring sufficient knowledge to understand the meanings of these works and the relationships among them will be forced to rent the audio tour to experience the show as it should be experienced. And that's not right.


What: "Picture Perfect."

Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near North Charles, 31st streets.

When: Tuesdays through Fridays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Through Jan. 17. Closed Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Admission: $5 adults, $3.50 seniors and students, $1.50 ages 4 through 18; free Thursdays.

Call: (410) 396-7100.

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