Many of the artists featured in Monet to Dalí—Modern Masters From the Cleveland Museum of Art, on display at the Frist Center through June 1, are familiar to most of us, either by name or signature style. Matisse’s bright colors, Mondrian’s squares, Rodin’s powerful sculptures, van Gogh’s thick brushstrokes, Picasso’s quivering still lifes, and Dalí’s dreamlike images are among the 62 paintings and 13 sculptures found in this progression through the Impressionist, Cubist and Surrealist movements. Arranged chronologically on walls of white or dove gray, Monet to Dali is an accessible and entertaining meander through almost a century of European art.
Claude Monet (1840-1926) is considered the leader of the Impressionist movement—he was among the first to paint in the new style, and he remained true to its principles throughout his career. Perhaps as a testament to his enduring popularity, one of his works was among the items stolen from a museum in Switzerland last month. His painting, along with a van Gogh, was recovered a little more than a week later; the Degas and Cézanne paintings are still missing. These four artists are all represented in the show at the Frist Center.
In Monet’s “The Red Kerchief: Portrait of Madame Monet” (1868-1878), his model and eventual wife gazes back over her shoulder into a window as she passes on a snowy day. “That’s what Impressionism is all about, this quick momentary sensation,” says William Robinson of the Cleveland Museum of Art, the original curator of the show, who was in Nashville for the opening. “This is really full-blown Impressionism—this is really a major landmark.”“We have a lot of seminal paintings in the artists’ careers,” Robinson says. These include Paul Gauguin’s “In the Waves” (1889), in which a redheaded nude is suspended over a backdrop of white-capped green waves. Gauguin became a full-time painter at the age of 35 after leaving a career as a stockbroker (midlife crisis indeed) and is best known for his tropically hued scenes of Tahitian women. Here he evokes the power of the waves and a sense of release using high-contrast, simplified images.
There are several paintings by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) in the show, including a portrait of his sister painted while in his late teens and the haunting “La Vie” (1903), from his Blue Period. His “Fan, Salt Box, Melon” (1909) is an example of early Cubism, while “Bottle, Glass, Fork” (1911-12), hanging in the Education Gallery, shows its development only a couple of years later. In the earlier, warm-hued painting, a tabletop on which the title items are arranged is still discernible; the later painting is a riot of angles in starker colors jutting out in all directions, in a manner similar to that found in Russian Constructivist paintings.
A small gallery in Monet to Dalí is devoted to Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), with models and casts of some of his most well-known and important pieces on view. Among them is a life-sized male nude, “The Age of Bronze” (1875-76), which was the subject of a lawsuit upon its presentation, in essence because it was too perfect. “These sculptures are of exceptional quality, and all of them have original patinas,” Robinson says. “Our museum is very fortunate because we had trustees who essentially began buying Rodin while he was still alive, right out of the studio.”
With works by Renoir, Pissarro, Modigliani, Brancusi and Henry Moore to see, it might be tempting to skip the Education Gallery tucked at the end of the exhibition—but that would be a mistake. The room’s charcoal-gray, lime-green and light-blue palette is drawn from van Gogh’s portrait of young Adeline Ravoux (1890), a picture chosen to highlight the artist’s use of color. The three other works illustrate Monet’s brushwork/technique, Rodin’s use of light to enhance three-dimensional portraiture and Picasso’s fragmentation of form. This “sidebar” gallery is as well done as the engaging “A Walk in Paris, ca. 1905” that accompanied last year’s Frist exhibit Matisse, Picasso and the School of Paris.
Similar in scale to that show, Monet to Dali was seen by half a million people during the Asian leg of its nine-city tour. Nashville is the second stop stateside and also marks the debut of new Frist associate curator Trinita Kennedy, formerly of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. This tour of 18th and 19th century European art is an excursion worth taking, providing a rare chance to see works by the period’s masters side by side, and to follow the evolution of three of art’s most influential movements.
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