Treasures worth waiting in line to see

July 09, 1996|By BENNARD B. PERLMAN

SIXTEEN YEARS AGO New York's Museum of Modern Art wowed the art world with its first blockbuster exhibit, "Pablo Picasso: a Retrospective." Thousands queued up daily, eager to view the life's work of the Great Innovator.

This summer the scene at MOMA has history repeating itself: The line for admission regularly stretches to Fifth Avenue and beyond as art aficionados stand for up to an hour before gaining entrance to "Picasso and Portraiture: Representative and Transformation," one of the current trio of blockbuster shows in Manhattan and Philadelphia museums.

No models for Picasso

"Transformation" is the key to this new spin of Picasso's oeuvre, represented at the Modern by nearly 250 paintings and works on paper of the face and figure.

Picasso, unlike legions of other artists, shunned the tradition of producing realistic likenesses in order to incorporate his reaction to the individuals he depicted. Interestingly, the great majority of his subjects were painted from tiny sketches or from memory, the model's presence unnecessary while the canvases evolved.

A case in point is the composition "Mother and Child," borrowed for the exhibit from the Baltimore Museum of Art's Cone Collection. It has always been assumed that the work shows Picasso's wife Olga and their 1 1/2 -year-old son Paulo.

But recent research indicates that while his wife was included in an initial pencil and watercolor drawing upon which the painting is based, the woman's head has been transformed to resemble an idealized likeness of an American, Sara Murphy, whose maternal warmth Picasso observed on the beach at Antibes throughout the summer of 1923, during which time the oil was produced. The long, wavy hair and cupid-bow lips are those of Murphy, attesting to the pictorial switch from Olga to Sara, from Picasso's wife to a woman with whom he had become increasingly infatuated.

Another of Picasso's remarkable innovations in this work is the manner in which he superimposed the linear elements of the woman and baby over areas of color. Other artists would have first painted the outline, then colored in the shapes like a sophisticated number painting.

But not Picasso. He initially rubbed turpentine-thinned shades of pastel hues over specific areas of the canvas, then superimposed the outlines. The result is that the local color of hair, flesh and clothing appear to float free beneath the figures' outlines.

Picasso's greatest battle with painting a traditional portrait had taken place 18 years earlier, in 1905, when he sought to depict Gertrude Stein. After having her pose for 90 sittings, he chose to scrub out the face, then recreate it months later from memory.

When complaints were raised that Stein did not resemble the painting, the unconcerned artist responded: "She will."

Dramatic Homer

If New York is agog over the Picasso show, it is equally enamored with a Winslow Homer exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an epic seen last winter at the National Gallery in Washington.

Although major Homer exhibits were held at the National Gallery a decade ago and at Washington's National Musuem of American Art in 1991, this most comprehensive offering, comprised of over 230 works, contains two additional attractions.

One is the inclusion of many of the artist's preparatory drawings for his oils, attesting to the importance he placed upon composition and his focus on the dramatic.

Second, there is a revealing study of how some Winslow Homer watercolors have been darkened by exposure to light over the years, with small sections of these recreated to demonstrate the brighter, crisper hues inherent in the works when they were initially painted.

The Cezanne show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is the East Coast's other current draw, an extravaganza of nearly 230 works which occupy 12 spacious galleries. Cezanne, too, is being recycled, this time combining numerous examples from an exhibition of his late works, seen at the Museum of Modern Art two decades ago; and from one of the early years shown at the National Gallery in 1989.

'The father of us all'

If anyone had doubted Cezanne's role as the fountainhead for 20th-century art, it is apparent in this show, as well as in the words of the era's two artistic giants: Picasso labeled him "the father of us all," while Matisse saw him as "a kind of benevolent god of painting." Even Claude Monet identified Cezanne as "the great one [who] was always in advance of us all."

In Philadelphia the oils, watercolors and drawings are grouped in a way that reveals evolution as well as chronology. Understanding the early influences of Courbet and Manet is made easy, as is the subtle introduction of Cezanne's unique brushstroke, first observed in the paintings of 1876-77 when he was in his late forties. Unlike Monet, Renoir and Picasso, who employed short, often isolated horizontal strokes, Cezanne began applying vertical and diagonal brushstrokes which he blended on the canvas. The result is a visual delight.

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