Saturday, September 17, 2016

Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterpieces from the Paul Allen Family Collection (Minneapolis Institute of Art)

Seeing Nature is a smallish, if interesting, exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.  (Unfortunately, it closes on September 19, 2016.)  The show illustrates the merits of being a museum member -- MIA is free, but special exhibitions are ticketed.  In this case, the show costs $20 a ticket, a pretty steep price, I think, for three mid-sized galleries of pictures -- probably about a total of 60 works. 

Although the exhibition is billed as landscapes, some of the pictures have only a tenuous connection to that subject -- this is particularly clear of three or four canvases by Jan Brueghel illustrating the senses:  the show includes pictures depicting touch, smell, and taste.  These paintings are deliriously overdetermined -- they contain paintings within paintings depicting historical episodes famously involving the sense portrayed as well as hundreds of minutely depicted flowers, fruits, and other artifacts.  The pictures are ingenious and studious, but not exceptionally interesting except for their allegorical subject-matter.  These are the oldest paintings in the show and the most tangential to the theme and since they occur near the entrance to the exhibit (they're the first things you see), it's more than a little confusing.  Pictures of this sort require either a glance or a half-hour of study and the show was crowded when I attended on Friday morning, packed with pensioners, and you don't have a half-hour to peruse these things.  There are several Turners, including a view of the lagoon at Venice with rococo ceremonial barges dissolving into charred brown skeletons in the general blaze of light.  The picture is hung next to a painting by Thomas Moran, also showing Venice -- it's an obvious imitation and casts an interesting light on this artist's later big paintings of the American west (not in the show).  A gaudy large-scale painting by David Hockney depicts the Grand Canyon, the painting split into separate canvases a little uncertainly assembled to make a panorama -- the image bears some relationship to Hockney's collages of polaroids assembled to make a cubist portrait of the thing shown.  Some Monet paintings are predictably pretty and pointless -- a large image of waterlilies and London Bridge irradiated so as melt into a bluish green fog with yellow elliptical portals, vaguely eye-shaped (these are the arches of the bridge).  A big, academic painting of Vesuvius erupting over Pompeii, rather cartoon-like and emphatic, makes a nice juxtaposition with a couple of very subtle Richter paintings -- one of them entitled "Vesuvius" shows a blurred promontory, a hazy sea, and, far away, the ghostly pyramid, almost imperceptible in the haze, of the volcano itself.   A very beautiful painting by Cezanne, part of his series of images on Monte Sainte Victoire is one of the show's highlights -- the picture shows the mountain and surrounding landscape as a collage of theatrical scenery flats, two-dimensional planes that are set adjacent to one another to provide an illusion of depth.  The mountain is a wonderful purplish grey and, like a military officer, has chevron-style epaulettes on one of its shoulders.  An artist unknown to me, April Gornick, is represented by a large, intensely dramatic painting called "Lake Light".  The picture shows some columns of rain falling from clouds above a distant mountain range rendered in silhouette in intense blue colors associated with Georgia O'Keefe.  In the foreground, there is a savannah, lush and green with trees that look vaguely African, and, beyond that, a strange wash of yellowish brown -- either a vast muddy lake or some kind of playa.  The parts of the landscape don't exactly fit together -- there's something vaguely feverish and surreal about the picture.  Another interesting picture is a landscape by Gustav Klimt -- it's a big painting of a birch woods:  the viewer looks down at the forest floor entirely covered, as if with mosaics, by the tesserae of fallen leaves; the birch trunks snake upward, some of them slightly greenish with moss.  It's a curious picture that makes manifest a tension that exists in many of these paintings:  that is, the contrast between the general impression made by a landscape and the individual details comprising the image.  In many landscapes, the eye is divided against itself -- do we take in the vast scope of land and sky, or should we linger on specific details?  (This is particularly problematic in paintings like those by Thomas Church not in the show.)  The Klimt painting seems to be all meticulously observed details and, yet, somehow the canvas is united -- it seems to be a whole.  The show ends with an eerie-looking painting of clamdigger by Edward Hopper.  The man looks gaunt and inexpressive, sitting against a shack with his dog next to him -- yellow grass hides most of the dog and, behind the building, there is a solid mass of menacing-looking green forest. 

Upstairs, in the room devoted to graphic works, there is an exhibition of the so-called "Little Masters" -- these were engravers who specialized in making tiny images mostly a little larger than postage stamps.  Included in the show are some engravings by Rembrandt and miscellaneous 17th century artists, although the majority are by the Beham brothers (Sebald and Barthel), contemporaries of Duerer in Nuremberg.  One of their images, "The Miser and the Still Birth" shows a robust-looking, heroically muscled man -- he looks like Hercules -- carrying a big uterus-shaped bag full of coins.  The bag is contrasted with a tiny dead child set below a nude woman with vulpine features who seems to preen her hair.  It's a startling image, about two by two inches, and much of the picture occupied by an explanatory cartouche in German that I read and that didn't explain anything.  One inch tall and two-and-half inches long is miniature landscape:  viewed with a magnifying glass the little engraving shows a road leading into the perspective of a landscape and, then, crosslng a gorge on the spans of a stone bridge that looks something like the London Bridge as shown in the landscape exhibition downstairs.  There's a castle on a hill and several gnat-sized figures to show the scale, a tour-de-force

The three galleries featuring the landscape show were packed with people.  The little viewing room at the end of the show where a film addressing some of the art works was being screened was packed to capacity, standing room only.  In the next gallery, there were crowds of people loitering around tables where visitors were invited to sketch their own landscapes.  On the wall, there was a wonderful life-sized photograph of Klimt, bald and wearing the monastic white robe that he was wont to don when he went outside to paint.  But at the MIA, you can always get away from the people by going into empty galleries only a few feet away.  A show called International Modernism, drawn from MIA collections, is full of fascinating second tier works, paintings not frequently exhibited but many of them very interesting -- it's a huge show, probably six big galleries, and, I think, there were five people looking at these paintings.  I had the print study room entirely to my self for almost a half-hour and the spectacular collections of Asian art are in galleries almost completely still and deserted.

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