'Pathetic' Art and the Real Thing

December 06, 1992

We were amused by a recent Wall Street Journal article that poked gentle fun at a new genre critics have dubbed "Pathetic" art -- works of such apparent naivete or incompetence they seem more suited to the Dumpster than the walls of trendy New York galleries. The Journal's reporter drolly noted such works are "hot" now, with prices that range into six figures. Now that's pathetic!

Before you write off the art world as deranged, recall that many of today's acknowledged masterworks were likewise once seen as the daubings of lunatics or impostors and that beauty, for better or worse, is ever in the eye of the beholder.

Baltimoreans, at any rate, now have a unique opportunity to experience the shock of the new -- with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. "Picture Perfect," a stunning display at the Baltimore Museum of Art, has brought some of the world's most famous modern paintings to town, including Cezanne's "The Bather," Van Gogh's "Starry Night," and Jackson Pollock's notorious manifesto of abstract expressionism, "Number 1, 1948."

Bear in mind that each of these works was considered revolutionary in its time -- which is to say that most people thought their creators were nuts. Not surprisingly, few of the early modern masters got rich off their work; some died in bitter poverty. Romantic tales of starving artists in picturesque Parisian garrets notwithstanding, the pioneers of modernism endured rejection, ridicule and often extreme privation and hardship to give expression to their extraordinary vision. Today we can only be thankful that they persevered.

The show includes an excellent recorded walking tour, and the paintings are magnificent. The BMA borrowed these icons of modernism, many of which rarely travel from New York's Museum of Modern Art, in exchange for 15 pieces it lent MOMA for the latter's Matisse retrospective. The happy exchange gives Baltimore art lovers -- and skeptics of the "pathetic" -- a rare chance to see the real thing. It is a treat not to be missed.

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