The show has been packing visitors in since mid-January, and with good reason. It's not often that we get to see -- firsthand and in one place -- so many works by so many modern masters. I counted 131 works by 77 artists.
Granted, nearly half the exhibition consists of drawings and preparatory sketches, rendered in ink, charcoal, pencil, pastel, or watercolor or in various combinations of these media. More than a dozen of these are from the Boca Museum's permanent collection, of which the museum is justifiably proud. The first two galleries, in particular, are dominated by drawings and sketches.
Not to worry. The rest of the show is full of some extraordinary oil paintings, along with a few watercolors and lithographs, half a dozen bronze sculptures, and one work in the orphan medium of gouache. If you don't lapse into sensory overload at least once or twice while wandering among these pieces, you have no business venturing into an art museum in the first place.
Executive director George S. Bolge clearly knows what he has on his hands, and so the museum has gone out of its way -- maybe even to the point of silliness -- to make the show seem extra special. There's an attendant on duty in the parking lot, and instead of entering the exhibition the usual way through the doors at the back of the museum, visitors have to follow a canopied walkway to the front of the building. Once inside, you're likely to be accosted by at least one of a small army of well-intentioned docents eager to share their knowledge about the show.
The exhibition is presided over by William Adolphe Bouguereau's Young Shepherdess (1868), a large oil on canvas that portrays the title character nonchalantly resting one arm atop her staff, staring off into the distance while her sheep graze in the landscape behind her. It's a stunning piece of traditional realism, and given Bouguereau's status as an academic and a guardian of the era's artistic status quo, its presence at the beginning of the show is an ironic comment on what's to come. After all, modernism at its most basic was a rebellion against tradition and convention.
The first small gallery is labeled "The Realist Tradition" and includes four small pencil drawings by Delacroix, along with a handful of drawings by lesser-known artists. There is also a pair of pieces by Léon Lhermitte, one of which, a pastel on paper called Potato Planting in the Spring (1888), is especially fine.
The next room, a long, narrow gallery, is likewise dominated by drawings, including three by Degas. One wall is devoted to a dozen pieces by Camille Pissarro. (Between this show and the Pissarro exhibition at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale, South Florida probably boasts more Pissarros than any other single location in the world, at least for the time being.) Again, they're mostly drawings in pencil or charcoal, although there's one standout in oil on panel, the landscape View From the Artist's Studio at Eragny (1894), which hints at the examples of impressionism and postimpressionism on display around the corner in the next gallery.
That gallery boasts the show's greatest concentration of riches. There are three pieces by the American Mary Stevenson Cassatt, two in pastel, one in charcoal, all representative of the artist's emphasis on domestic life. The one Renoir (Gabrielle in the Garden) and one Cézanne (Landscape Along the Oise River) are likewise typical of those artists' work. The show's single van Gogh, by contrast -- Mending the Nets (1882) -- seems uncharacteristically dark and muted for the artist, lacking the hallucinogenic intensity for which he's known.
Three pieces in this gallery are especially notable. Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot's A Peasant in the Country (1866), a gorgeous image in delicate earth tones of a woman on a wooded country trail, makes emphatically clear the influence Corot exerted on impressionism. A few feet away, Monet's ethereal Waterloo Bridge (1903), with only the vaguest suggestions of the bridge's arches in its background, is a perfect example of impressionism in full flower. Between the two is Edge of the Woods in Autumn (1883), a lovely landscape by Alfred Sisley, an impressionist who unaccountably never quite achieved the status of his classmates Monet and Renoir.
Beyond this gallery, in the museum's large main gallery, the exhibition's many sections begin to run together in a blur: "Neo-Impressionism," "The Nabis," "The Fauves," "The Cubists." Rather than try to make sense of the meandering flow of the show, it's best to hone in on individual works that stand out from the crowd.
For instance Seurat's Two Women (1882- 83), a small charcoal on paper from the museum's permanent collection, is a striking study in contrasts that's a far cry from the pointillist oils for which the artist is most famous. The two women of the title are portrayed with only the barest details, one suggested by a few white spaces lightly overlaid with smudges of charcoal, the other sketched in with heavy swaths of black.
Pointillism gets its due and then some, however, in The Brook at Pierrechnien, an undated oil by Georges Lacombe. The artist applies what appears to be an intense hybrid of impressionism and pointillism to a simple woodland landscape, resulting in a delirious cascade of improbable colors -- trees, rocks, ground foliage, a stream of water, all painted not in earthy browns and greens but in shimmering daubs of rich purple, orange, maroon, aqua, and other unexpected hues.
The show's two bronze sculptures by Gauguin are on the dull side (as is the bronze piece by Pierre Bonnard with which they're displayed), although Gauguin's oil-on-canvas The Barge and the Boat (1882) is a good example of the kind of work the artist produced before he abandoned France for the South Pacific. It's a more or less impressionist painting with a realistic color scheme and an unusual composition that juxtaposes one end of a river barge with just the smallest portion of a boat's bow jutting into the bottom left of the image.
There is only one piece each by Matisse and Picasso, and both are drawings from the museum's permanent collection. Both are also models of simplicity. Matisse's Girl at the Piano (1925) demonstrates the rich possibilities of charcoal, while Picasso's portrait Fernande Olivier (1906) uses spare, clean lines to evoke the haughty profile of one of his mistresses. These two works are nicely complemented by the Modigliani drawing Portrait of Diego Rivera (1914), which portrays the Mexican artist as a sort of enigmatically smiling Buddha.
The show includes a smattering of other works of interest, representing such "name" artists as Georges Braque, André Derain, Raoul Dufy, Juan Gris, Fernand Léger, Emil Nolde, Auguste Rodin, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. But there's also some filler, pieces that don't do much more than extend an already overwhelming exhibition.
Call it a personal quirk, but I think two paintings displayed side by side near the end of the show, all by themselves, make "Paris 1860-1930: Birthplace of European Modernism" live up to its subtitle. Both Giorgio de Chirico's The Archaeologists (c. 1928) and Chaim Soutine's The Flayed Ox (1923) strike me as dramatic embodiments of the links -- and breaks -- between the art of the past and the art ushered in by modernism.
The Archaeologists is a large oil of two muscular if oddly proportioned figures of indeterminate gender crowded into an armchair. Their torsos are cluttered with fragments of columns from classical Greek architecture and other architectural details, along with several hard-to-decipher objects, and their flowing robes suggest the dress of ancient Greece or Rome. Their heads, however, are rendered as large, featureless, egg-shape ovals that could spring only from the imagination of a surrealist.
With The Flayed Ox, Soutine, too, straddles the centuries. On a literal level, it's simply a graphic portrait of an animal carcass hanging upside down, created with violent swirls and smears of oil visceral enough to summon up the stench of raw flesh. But trace the picture's ancestry back through the centuries, and you'll find yourself in the company of Rembrandt, who painted animal carcasses as vivid as Soutine's. Then follow Soutine's work forward, and you end up with the savage imagery of an artist who commanded his own private corner of modernism, Francis Bacon.
Coming, as they do, at the end of the show, these two dramatically contrasting paintings are revealing footnotes that pull this sprawling, exhilarating exhibition into sharp focus.