Few would argue with the premise of this exhibition that “some of the most exciting and innovative art ever made” came from Paris in the period between Degas and Picasso. One might question, however, whether much of it can be seen in this show. It might best be approached as an antiques fair. The signage offers no fresh insights into art history and most of the pieces are just as stale. With patience, however, hidden treasures and curiosities can be discovered. The two pastels by Armand Guillaumin (1841-1927) suffice to demonstrate how the French school changed over those decades. In an 1879 piece, he pictorialized a harbor scene to deliver a strong sense of time and place. In 1909, however, he broke down the visual components of a landscape, as Cezanne had done, to share the excitement of light, space and color.
The greatest treasure is a six-by-nine-inch graphite sketch by Mary Cassatt depicting an alert young man sitting by himself at the far end of a sofa. It would seem to be a trivial subject matter, based on the availability of a model more than anything else. But the space has been so well organized and the young man so precisely drawn, the intimate scene is exciting anyway.
Several prints and drawings by Degas exhibit that same precision, and we get to see his compositional mind at work as we compare two states of an 1891 lithograph. It depicts a standing bather, and if you ignore the woman’s tender young bottom, you might notice how the artist has changed the background to enhance her gesture. Two other standing bathers, drawn ten years later, appear to echo the boldness that was entering the Parisian art world with young provocateurs like Matisse and Picasso. Their early graphics are also on display, and in historical context, these pieces are fascinating. It’s like being present at the birth of the confrontational kind of modern art that eventually became normative. But these mostly crude sketches offer little of the aesthetic thrill found in their paintings that followed.
There is also more historical than aesthetic interest in the room devoted to the “Section d’Or” exhibition of 1912. One-hundred years ago, art students from around the world came to Paris to study with the likes of André Lhote and Albert Gleizes. Tarsila Amaral would soon carry Cubism back to São Paulo while Leon and Sadie Garland carried it back to Chicago. Concerning their work In this exhibition, however, I would tend to agree with Picasso who derided these painters as “les horribles serre-files” (horrible stragglers). They abandoned old conventions, but they were just as dull when they followed new ones. A notable exception would be Gleizes’ small, intense portrait of Igor Stravinsky.
Other than wax studies by Degas, the sculpture here is even more disappointing. Antoine-Louis Barye was one of the greatest animalier sculptors of all time, but his humble cast of a lion belongs in an airport gift shop. A geo-form figure by André Beaudin represents Cubism, but it offers little else. Perhaps the collector had no opportunity to purchase a Jacques Lipchitz, as indeed the rest of this collection is also limited by whatever was available and affordable to just one buyer. It’s too bad he chose to remain anonymous. The show would probably have been more interesting had he shared his own opinions and personal experiences in the gallery labels. (Chris Miller)
“Degas to Picasso: Creating Modernism in France” shows through January 28 at the Milwaukee Art Museum, 700 North Art Museum Drive, Milwaukee.