Art de Triomphe

The Norton's exhibition of 19th- and 20th-century paintings is pure French bliss

Instead of one of Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas' famous portraits of ballet dancers, we get Before the Race (1882­84), a work from his racetrack series, with the movements of five horsemen captured in shiny, earthy colors. And Paul Gauguin's Vahine no te vi (Woman of the Mango) (1892) is a perfect example of the bold, colorful style he adopted when he took up residence in Tahiti. (Degas bought this painting, a portrait of Gauguin's Polynesian wife, for himself three years after it was completed.)

The exhibition ends with a bang in "Into Modernism." Two startlingly different works by Pablo Picasso are a reminder of the vast scope of his work: Woman with Bangs (1902), an unnerving portrait of a despondent-looking woman from the artist's famous Blue Period; and the neoclassical portraiture of Mother and Child (1922), correctly summed up on the wall panel as "more a drawing in oil than a painting."

The real star of this final gallery is Henri Matisse, who, like Picasso, is in a category by himself. The three paintings here came two to three decades after a 1905 exhibition of Matisse and several other artists led one critic to label them fauves, or "wild beasts." But these later works share the flattened perspective, disfiguration, and emphasis on bright colors that characterized fauvism.

It's post(impressionism) time in Degas' Before the Race (1882-84)
It's post(impressionism) time in Degas' Before the Race (1882-84)

More than anything, I think, Matisse was in love with colors and patterns. In Interior, Flowers and Parakeets (1924), the room is a delirious clamor of colorful textures competing for our attention. Likewise the woman in Odalisque with Green Sash (1927) shares her space with a samovar, table, and bright red-and-white­striped wall. And in Purple Robe and Anemones (1937), the pictured room houses a jangly juxtaposition of contradictory shapes and patterns that seem unstable, as if they're about to dance off the canvas and lurch directly toward us.

These Matisses alone make "The Triumph of French Painting" worth seeing. That said, the entirety of the show left me exhilarated -- and it didn't offer even a single multimedia installation. Fancy that.

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