Exhibit of 'Great French Paintings' is well worth ignoring collector's wishes

May 06, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

There is no doubt that the touring exhibition of "Great French Paintings From the Barnes Foundation" violates the wishes and the specific instructions of Albert Coombs Barnes, the great and eccentric collector to whom they belonged.

In the trust indenture establishing his foundation, Barnes stated that his paintings were never to be loaned to a museum. The Barnes trustees had to go to court to get that provision set aside for this one international tour that began at Washington's National Gallery Sunday and will go on to Paris, Tokyo and Philadelphia.

But there are powerful arguments in favor of the tour. First, it is to raise money -- at least $7 million -- for the much-needed renovation of the foundation's building in Merion, Pa.

Aside from that, these paintings are not solely the property of one man. They are, many of them, among the landmarks of modern art, and as such they also belong to the world. They demand to be shown to the world, and especially to be seen in France, where they were created.

And they demand to be seen in the proper setting that they

have, essentially, been given in Washington. One would not want to alter Barnes' idiosyncratic organization of them at Merion; but there the Renoirs, the Cezannes, the Matisses are scattered all over the various rooms. In Washington multiple works by individual artists are seen together, and all are seen at the proper height and with the proper lighting.

The benefit of seeing a work such as Seurat's "Models" (1886-1888) under such circumstances is incalculable. At Merion, is hung high on a wall. In Washington, it becomes a focal point of the exhibit, where one can study Seurat's pointillism up close and retreat as far as two galleries away to look at it from a distance.

Of Barnes' 180 Renoirs, only 16 have made the trip to Washington; they occupy almost exclusively the show's first two galleries, and Renoir's warmth and sweetness is such that they will prove too many for some. There are lovely and affecting individual works, however, chief among them the portrait of "Jeanne Durand-Ruel" (1876).

With Cezanne's 20 paintings one enters the true greatness of Barnes' collection. Whatever the peculiarities of his ideas on art, they led him to magnificent holdings of Cezanne and Matisse. Works by the former include the largest and most complex of his "Card Players" (1890-1892), one of the three late, monumental paintings of bathers, called "Nudes in Landscape" (1900-1905), both a "Mont Sainte-Victoire" (1885-1895) and a "Bibemus Quarry" (1898) from his series of paintings on those subjects, two portraits of Madame Cezanne ("Madame Cezanne," 1885-1887; and "Woman in a Green Hat," 1894-1895), four still lifes; even a painting on a less familiar subject, "Potted Plants" (1888-1890), possesses a commanding, moving grandeur.

"Le Bonheur de Vivre" (The Joy of Life) (1905-1906) is the most famous Matisse in the Barnes collection and perhaps its most famous painting.

Seminal to Matisse's work, it contains motifs such as the dance and

the reclining nude that were major preoccupations of the artist. It also, from our vantage point, seems to sum up Matisse's stance toward the 20th century: that he would go forward without relinquishing the past, and that his work would exist within the realm of the beautiful.

This is one of the grand final gallery's 14 Matisses. They include "Seated Riffian" (1912-1913) from the artist's Morocco paintings, the "Three Sisters Triptych" (1917) and "The Music Lesson" (1917), one of two versions of this subject -- the other, "The Piano Lesson" (1916) is at the Museum of Modern Art.

Just outside this gallery is the 1932-1933 "The Dance," the mural commissioned by Barnes. It is accompanied here by the first version of the mural, which Matisse abandoned when he learned the dimensions were wrong for the space in which it was to be installed. Discovered in the artist's studio last summer near Nice, France, the earlier version is on public view for the first time in Washington.

A show of these Cezannes and Matisses alone would be a once-in-a-lifetime event; and no mention has been made of the seven Picassos, the four Modiglianis, the three Henri Rousseaus, the two Gauguins and two Toulouse-Lautrecs, the van Gogh.

Oddly enough, although the show's accompanying catalog contains detailed texts by respected scholars on each of the works, the show itself contains virtually no information beyond identifying labels.

ART REVIEW

What:"Great French Paintings From the Barnes Foundation: Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Early Modern."

Where:The National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue N.W., Washington.

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Aug. 15.

Admission: Free timed passes available for the same day and in advance at the gallery. Passes also available through Ticketmaster for a fee.

Call: For information about the exhibit, (202) 842-6713; for passes through Ticketmaster, (410) 481-SEAT.

''The Music Lesson (La Lecon de Musique)'' by Henri Matisse.

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