Delightfully playing with color Art: A love of the visual world shines through Herman Maril's paintings.

May 26, 1998|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Herman Maril (1908-1986) was one of the most important 20th-century artists to live and work in Baltimore. A Maril exhibition is always a substantial event, and the show of 20 paintings and one drawing at Galerie Francoise is no exception. His landscapes and interiors combine modernist elements with traditional subject matter, reveal his mastery of color, and possess a timeless serenity that has a peaceful, calming effect on the viewer.

Early in his career Maril was somewhat influenced by cubism, as evidenced by works such as 1955's "Midnight Snack" with its still life elements, its shallow space and its radically tilted table top almost as vertical as the surface of the canvas.

Color was such an important element for Maril that sometimes he used it for its own sake, aside from whatever role it may play in the picture. "Hanging Basket" (late 1970s) ostensibly shows the basket hanging in front of a window with blue sky beyond. But Maril doesn't want the viewer to believe that that's really sky -- he's obviously playing around with blue paint, now lighter, now darker, and communicating his delight in that kind of play.

The beach scenes inspired by Maril's summers on Cape Cod can be landscapes and also abstract compositions. "Seascape" (1963) arranges the landscape into a geometric abstraction -- a rectangle of sky, a triangle of water and so on. "Beach Picnic" (1985), which shows him in fine form the year before his death, has a series of bands of color (sky, sea, sand) above a still life whose elements (fruit, glasses) are actually an abstract arrangement of shapes. They're gathered on a rumpled cloth that recalls Cezanne, that creator of modernism.

No matter how much Maril plays with art history in his paintings, though, their mood ultimately prevails. They are permeated by Maril's quiet but unmistakable love of the visual world -- of nature, yes, but also of a room with a baby playing on the floor, or a table with a pitcher and some cheese on it. That love above all becomes the atmosphere of the paintings, makes them enchanting and memorable.

Art lessons

How many know that in Michelangelo's painting of "The Last Judgment" (1536-1541) in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel, the artist is thought to have depicted himself -- and not as one of the saved but as one in danger of falling into the abyss of Hell?

Or that Edward Hopper's famous picture of a cafe, called "Nighthawks" (1942), though it looks so realistic, was changed for effect? "I simplified the scene a great deal and made the restaurant a lot bigger," Hopper said.

These and many other details about famous works of art are contained in "Great Artists" (DK Publishing, $24.95), a new book that examines one or two works by each of 50 masters of painting from the 15th century (Hugo van der Goes, Piero della Francesca) to the 20th (Matisse, Picasso, Pollock). The author is Robert Cumming, chairman of the education department of Christie's auction house in London.

The book reproduces each work in large size on a two-page spread, gives a brief biography of the artist, and points out details about the painting in short text passages with lines drawn from the text to the exact spot being discussed. Example: In van Gogh's "Yellow Chair" (1888) a text singles out "Terracotta Tiles: Van Gogh's thick, emphatic strokes recreate the physical presence and color of terracotta tiles. He loved simple, utilitarian objects, which he associated with his own self-professed 'peasant' lifestyle."

The book has problems. The brief texts provide a fragmented approach rather than a sustained discussion of the works. And there are silly errors that a good copy reader would have caught. For instance, the discussion of Piero della Francesca says in one place that he "died relatively unknown" and in another that he "died a celebrity."

On the other hand, the bits-and-pieces approach does get the reader to notice details -- good practice for the prospective museum-goer. And the size of the reproductions is one of the book's pluses.

A new view

Tired of going back to the usual museums in Washington? Interested in something a little different? Consider the Kreeger Museum, tucked away on Foxhall Road in northwest Washington.

The late philanthropist David Lloyd Kreeger and his wife, Carmen, put together a large collection of modern art by masters from van Gogh and Cezanne to Arshile Gorky and Frank Stella, plus some Washington artists including Sam Gilliam and Gene Davis. In 1967, they had architect Philip Johnson design them a house in a severe modern style built on repetitions of a 22-foot-square module, and it became the repository for the collection.

In 1994 the museum opened to the public on a restricted basis. There are two docent-led tours, at 10: 30 a.m. and 1: 30 p.m., every Tuesday through Saturday, and reservations are required. The museum can accommodate individuals or groups of up to 35, with a suggested donation of $5 for individuals and a required donation of $5 a person for groups of more than 10. For information, reservations and directions, call 202-338-3552 Mondays through Fridays 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Maril exhibit

Where: Galerie Francoise et ses freres is at Green Spring Station, Falls and Joppa roads

When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. today through Saturday; noon to 4 p.m. Sunday

Call: 410-337-2787

Pub Date: 5/26/98

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