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Egon Schiele at the Neue Galerie; Vincent van Gogh & Fra Angelica at The Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Legacy of Homer at the Dahesh Museum of Art

December 2005

Vincent van Gogh “Harvest in Provence”, ca. June 12, 1888 (oil on canvas) 73 x 92 cm (28-3/4 x 36-1/4 in.) Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

ORGANIZED BY THE Neue Galerie’s director, Renée Price, this exhibition* brings together some 150 paintings and drawings gleaned from the extensive collections of Ronald S. Lauder and Serge Sabarsky of the works of what many have hailed as one of Austria’s “greatest artists of the 20th-Century”, Egon Schiele. Ranging from his earliest academic work (see, e.g., Cat. Nos. D1 thru D19) to his “mature” style (he only lived until the age of 28) of figurative work in the expressionist mode, the exhibit is spread over a number of spacious and well-lit galleries on two separate floors of the Neue Galerie. Influenced by such forerunners as Vincent van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Gustave Klimt, et al. who were responsible for “liberating” art from what was perceived as the strait-jacket of academicism, Schiele’s forte was depicting psychological portraits (self- and other-) that in their impact on the viewer seem (as did those of many of the so-called ‘expressionists”) anything but liberating. Lauded for revealing the ‘truth’ that lay behind illusion, this was a truth that many found not only offensive, but also as patently false as the saccharine-sweet “prettiness” of the academics — at any rate, a truth that few would be willing to own as their own. Whatever one may come away with after viewing a full dose of Schiele’s distinctly individual vision of the human figure, there can be no doubt that he was a masterful draftsman, able to forcefully depict the most common objects (“A Plow”, Cat. No. D22), delineate a delicate blossom (“Flower Studies (Bindweed, Poppies, and Daisies” Cat. No. D168), or sensitively capture a meditative moment (“The Father-in-Law Harms”, Cat. No. D134). In several of his drawings (Cat. Nos. D163 thru D167), he seems hardly to lift his pencil, the figure drawings performed almost through the use of a single, continuous line. Schiele, however, had other ideas than to use his art as a simple means of reporting what he saw — no matter how well he might be able to do just that. His was a vision that had grown out of a personal confrontation with a world that was quickly changing before his eyes. Indeed, had he lived to witness it, he would have experienced his own celebrity transform from one of acceptance to one of rejection, his work lumped together with most of the expressionists by the Nazis under the all-condemning “Entarte Art” — i.e., “degenerate” art. That he had obtained such a powerful means of moving his viewers at such a relatively young age leads one to wonder what he might have attained in the fullness of his years. This is a powerful exhibition and, for better or worse, there will be few who will be able to come away from it unmoved.

Egon Schiele, “Elisabeth Lederer,
Seated with Hands Folded” 1913.

INTERESTING, IN LIGHT of the previous look at the drawings of Schiele, is to view those of Vincent van Gogh, one of the early artists that many of the expressionists claimed as an influence on their own development (i.e. liberation). Some 113 works drawn from both private and public collections around the world, the exhibit “Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings”** presently set up in a special viewing area on the second floor of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, offer a career-long overview of the artist’s work. Here, as in the Schiele exhibit, we can easily follow the move from straight “reporting” (“Windmills near Dordrecht (Weeskinderendijk)” (Cat. No. 2), through interpretation (“Head of a Woman” (Cat. No. 27); “the Zouave” (Cat. Nos. 77, 78, 79)) to a final (mature) personal vision (“Cypresses” Cat. No. 108). Though there are a few landscapes sprinkled throughout the Schiele exhibit, the Austrian was by far more interested in the exploring the human figure and it was in depicting them that he found his most powerful voice. Vincent van Gogh, on the other hand, appears to have found his personal liberation not so much in exploring what lies beneath the human façade, but rather in seeking the mysterious underpinnings of an ever-changing natural landscape. Where Schiele appears to uncover individual torment, van Gogh appears to uncover the seething movement of energy that lies behind ‘solid’ matter. Again, it is obvious that both artists were capable of rendering phenomena in the traditional academic way; equally obvious is that both were intent on seeing the world in the light of their own individual psyches. It is, in the end, irrelevant if one chooses the vision of one over the other — what matters is if the viewer is convinced that what one is seeing is forceful enough to speak the ‘truth’ of the creator as he, as artist, has seen and understood it. What each individual viewer comes away with ultimately depends on what that viewer believes is the purpose of art — or, in other words, his or her own concept of what ‘truth’ is and how art ought to serve it. If not as “loudly” stated as Schiele’s work, van Gogh (who doesn’t seem to exude as much of a whiff of the psychoanalyst’s office for me), in his own quiet and plodding way, is equally forceful in his message. Vincent van Gogh, of course, (as is true of any great artist) deserves to be evaluated on the basis of his own work and not in relation to that of another. Spending a few hours or so browsing and allowing him to communicate with you is not a bad way to while away an afternoon. Taking in both of these shows on the same day can offer some interesting insights.

Fra Angelico (Italian, ca. 1390/95-1455) Virgin and Child, with Five Angels, ca. 1426/27 (Tempera on panel) Overall, 38-7/8 x 18-1/4 in., picture surface 37-3/8 x 18-1/4 in. Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain, Collection Museo Thyssen Bornemisza. Photo: Thyssen Bornemisza Collection, on deposit in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona

ALTHOUGH ONLY A floor away in the Robert Lehman Wing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in, because of its difference in impact you might want to put off visiting the Fra Angelico exhibit*** for another day. (In fact, I rarely view more than a single exhibit on any given day, since I am prone to becoming visually overloaded pretty quickly and am unable to form clear conceptions if I overstep my limitations.) The first retrospective of his work in America, “Fra Angelico” comprises some seventy-five of his drawings, mss. illuminations, and paintings, and also includes forty-five additional works by his assistants and followers — it is, therefore, not only different in kind from the van Gogh show upstairs, but also a lot to take in as well. To begin with, there is the subject matter. Fra Angelico, as his name implies, was a Dominican monk (his ‘real’ name was Guido di Pietro, the “angelic friar” a nickname given him by his contemporaries and followers), and his life’s work was given over to imparting the teachings of Catholicism through the skill of his art. Thus, instead of simple landscapes and figures, his subject-matter is confined to heavenly figures and such earth-bound personages as popes, saints, martyrs, and apostles. Unless one is devoted to the Dominican friar’s pictorial history and dogma of the Roman church and is intent on identifying his cast of characters, the uninitiated (or uninterested) can focus on the work — gathered together from over fifty public institutions and private collections in Europe and America — of this extraordinary painter. Born in Florence, Fra Angelico’s skill with the brush quickly brought him to attention both in and outside of the church, and he was called upon to fulfill commissions for churches over most of Italy. Though his reputation was largely made on the strength of his frescos, the present exhibit offers a wide range of his smaller works — almost all of which (and in spite of the repetition of subject-matter) are little gems of perfection. If one is drawn to admiring the skill displayed in painting so many multi-figured compositions in miniature, it is (at least for this viewer) the color that is particularly arresting. So vivid are the reds, blues, and golds that most seem to have been painted yesterday. Technical skill, of course, was a hallmark of the Italian Renaissance, and Fra Angelico was one of its leading stars. How fortunate that we have so many examples from which we can determine just how far they had grown in perfecting the art of painting three-dimensional subjects on a two-dimensional surface. In today’s artworld, such technical expertise is often given short shrift — and the idea that one ought to be first a craftsman before one can claim to be an artist, somewhat of an old-fashioned concept. Still, for all their apparent “sameness” to the uninitiated eye, each one of these painters — Lorenzo Monaco, Battista di Biagio Sanguigni, Zanobi Strozzi (don’t miss his series of exquisite miniatures done in brush and brown ink with white gouache and orange wash on pink-purple prepared parchment) — Pesellino, Benozzo Gozzoli, as well as Fra Angelico — is a master craftsman who has certainly done his homework. If we really want to know what a “painter” is, visiting this exhibit will more than inform you and enlighten you — it will delight your sense of just what “fine” art is.

Louis-Vincent-Léon Pallière, 1787-1820, “Ulysses and Telemachus
Massacre Penelope’ s Suitors”, 1812 (oil on canvas)

WHICH BRINGS US to the exhibit, “The Legacy of Homer.” The French Academicians not only inherited the tradition of fine art painting from the Italian Renaissance, but also expanded and built upon the principles of craftsmanship by applying it to both their and, as this exhibition shows, ancient civilizations. On loan to the Dahesh Museum of Art and the Princeton Museum of Art from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, this beautiful exhibit of paintings, sculptures, etchings, and oil studies show what urging a little bit of learning on the part of its artists might attain. Several oil studies included in the show, in fact, are student competition pieces meant for an exhibition designed to exemplify a particular theme found in Greek literature, thus forcing the art student to look beyond his own discipline (and time). The present show, incidentally, is itself thematically organized by Greek subject matter: “”Historical Background”, “The Gods”, “Achilles”, “The Fall of Troy”, etc. For me, visiting the Dahesh Museum of Art is always a pleasant experience — as I am sure it is for most appreciators of fine art. Dedicated as it is to what they call a “radical reappraisal of 19th-Century art”, the Dahesh has outdone itself with this outstanding representation of the genre of representational art. On view for the first time in the United States, for example, is Jaques-Louis David’s monumental (275 x 203cm) oil “La Douleur d’Andromaque sur le corps d’Hector” (Andromache Mourning Hector), along with a host of France’s outstanding artists (Paul Jourdy, Alexandre-Adolphe-Gustave Levasseur, Jean-Louis Brian, Jean-Charles-Joseph Rémond, Henri Regnault, Jean-Baptiste Marty, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, Alfred Edouard Lepère, Pierre-Jules Cavelier, Henri-Lucien Doucet, Jules-Joseph Lefebvre, Charles-Louis Bazin, André Giroux, Hippolyte Flandrin, Gustave Boulanger, among others) of the period. “The Legacy of Homer” is a show in the grand style of the official French Salon, painterly skill and erudition combined in a manner to impress and exalt the human spirit. Whether we will or no, viewing these paintings takes us far from the world we have since come to know — a world of petty greed, quick fixes, and ignoble goals. In this world, Homer’s world and the 19th-
Century of heroic painters, we mere mortals hob-nob on an equal footing with the gods — being human meant something back then and the French were not ashamed to feel a part of that grander scheme. Oh, well — we’ve come a long way, and most of that journey seems to have been downhill. Today’s young artists seek markets and not honors. But then, the French knew our frailties and foibles as well — and the Dahesh Museum is perhaps not all that elitist as I seem to be making it out to be. They conclude the exhibition with a section called “Homeric Laughter” and what could be more poking fun at the pompier than a rackful of Honoré Daumier’s prints lampooning the whole Greek mythos? If you like your elegance with a side order of laughter, you’ll like this one.

*“Egon Schiele: The Ronald S. Lauder and Serge Sabarsky Collections” (thru Feb 20, ’06): Neue Galerie: Museum for German and Austrian Art, 1048 Fifth Ave., NYC (212) 628-6200.

**“Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings” (thru Dec 31): The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave., NYC (212) 570-3951.

***“Fra Angelico” (thru Jan 29): The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave., NYC (212) 570-3951.

****“The Legacy of Homer: Four Centuries of Art from The Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, “Paris” (thru Jan 22): The Dahesh Museum of Art, Madison Ave., NYC. A concurrent exhibit of the same name (thru Jan 15) is currently at the Princeton University of Art Museum, Princeton, NJ.

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