Rural western Massachusetts may seem an unlikely location for major collections of fine art, but it is home to a group of superb museums, including the Williams College Museum of Art, the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute, and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Another of these museums, that of Smith College in Northampton, is currently renovating their facility. Like the Barnes, the Phillips, and the Smithsonian museums before them, they are using the occasion to send their art collection on the road. Seattle is the last stop on a national tour of their 19th and early 20th century paintings.. The show titled, Corot to Picasso, has just opened at SAM. Here with our review is KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
Someday, Seattle art lovers will welcome an exhibit celebrating 19th century painting in its full richness and complexity. American audiences will swoon before masterworks by artists virtually unknown to US museums, from countries like Poland, Russia, Norway, and Germany. “Why have I never before heard of Repin and Malczewski, Hammershøi, and Menzel?” viewers will ask. “Why aren’t their paintings in American collections and art history books?”
And while highly overexposed, the art of the French modern movement is always a joy, and no one will come away from this show disappointed. The sixty or so works from Smith College — hung with an unprecedented amount of space between each piece — reiterate the standard narrative of the history of modern art: first came the bad academic artists, then came Corot, who begat Courbet, who begat Manet, etc. The pleasures in the exhibit — and there are many — comes not from any new curatorial insights, but from the generally stellar quality of the works, and the chance to see less familiar pieces by very familiar names.
There is Mondrian before grids, Bonnard before color, and Kandinsky before abstraction. All are represented by skillful, lyrical landscapes — the fluent and sensuous transcription of the Dutch countryside by Mondrian perhaps the most surprising in the light of his later severe and geometric style. Degas also weighs in with an early work — a youthful indiscretion in his case. Like most ambitious artists of his time, Degas originally aspired to paint the sort of giant, story-telling canvases that won the most respect at the annual Salons. But he was clearly not cut out for such work, and the unfinished Biblical piece in the show is a fascinating wreck, wisely abandoned for the more gripping — to him — subject of contemporary life.
Courbet is also represented by a skeleton from his closet, a huge depiction of the preparation of a dead girl for burial. But this abandoned, rather ugly canvas, apparently meant as a pendant to his masterful "Burial at Ornans," suffered a fate worse than death after the artist’s passing — being defaced in the interests of commerce. An incredibly inept later hand retouched the nude corpse with a wedding dress and open eyes in an apparent attempt to get more for the picture at auction, corpses being less marketable than brides.
Monet seems to have sprung into the world fully formed as an artist, and his suburban sunset done a half-decade before the first impressionist show is a model of artistic economy and skill. Though muted, the golden, salmon, and violet colors of the sky seem more vivid than life, all the more impressive for having been captured in a fleeting moment. In a later Monet, afternoon sunlight on a poppy field glows in complements of red and green, the crusty paint rich with the illusion of detail.
Monet’s immediate predecessor, Corot and the other Barbizon painters, are also shown to advantage. A typical early Corot, with its clear and precise observation of the tonal effect of sunlight on architecture, is hung next to one of his later, more amorphous woodland views. Monet’s mentor, the marine artist Boudin, weighs in with a tiny, gemlike harbor scene, the spiky masts of sailing ships contrasting with the soft atmosphere.
One can imagine a worse fate than wandering through endless Impressionist retrospectives. But as to whether we will live long enough to see such art exhibited in the broader perspective of European painting as a whole, only time will tell.