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Capsule Art Reviews: "The Age of Impressionism: Great French Paintings from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute," "Georges Braque: A Retrospective," John Singer Sargent: The Watercolors, Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938

"The Age of Impressionism: Great French Paintings from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute" These days, Impressionist exhibitions are the art museum version of the ballet The Nutcracker: frothy and beautiful, if a little overexposed, and sure to pack 'em in at almost any price. Even though we've already had at least six or eight Impressionist shows during the past ten years, who could fail to love yet another one that includes 70-plus paintings by Renoir, Monet, Pissarro and Degas, among others? That's what the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is offering with "The Age of Impressionism." This isn't a star vehicle so much as an ensemble piece; these aren't the paintings that make the textbooks. They are, rather, a tribute to the taste of a collecting couple with very good eyes for art and lots of resources (that is to say, money) who were buying paintings to enhance their own lives at home rather than to dazzle tourists in museums. Frankly, unless you're something of an art specialist, you may have trouble remembering many of the paintings individually a day or two after you've seen the show. But if you're lucky enough to see it under the right conditions (not too many other viewers, the right kind of light that so often suffuses the galleries in the Rafael Moneo-designed Beck Building at MFAH, at a time when you're really in an art-viewing mood), you're almost certain to remember the deeply satisfying feeling that comes from standing in galleries surrounded by beautiful, harmonious paintings. Not at all a bad memory to take away from any exhibition. Extended through May 4. 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300. — RT

"Georges Braque: A Retrospective" French artist Georges Braque (1882-1963) often gets second billing to his more famous colleagues Matisse and Picasso. He was as accomplished as either of them (or almost so), but not nearly as many go giddy at news of another Braque exhibition as do for the other two. With the exhibition "Georges Braque: A Retrospective" coming to Houston from Paris, where it was mounted on the 50th anniversary of Braque's death, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston takes him out of the shadows of Matisse and Picasso and lets him stand gloriously on his own. Included are 70-plus works from all periods of his career, starting with a spine-tingling group of his fauve ("wild beast") paintings from 1906-1907, exploding with purple trees, green skies, blue mountains and red waves. These may be the greatest, and most satisfying, surprise of all. But there are also entire galleries of his delicate, art history-changing cubist paintings, as well as plenty examples of his own unique contribution to art, papier collé (collage), so fragile and so difficult to borrow that you may never be able to see so many together again. Installed in the Upper Brown Pavilion of the MFAH Caroline Wiess Law Building, a vast space that was recently reconfigured, the show shines brilliantly. One moment you can be completely surrounded by works of a single style or period, and then with a step or two you can see through to other galleries of earlier or later works and make visual connections across Braque's long career. It's a show not to be missed. Through May 11. 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300. — RT

John Singer Sargent: The Watercolors American expatriate artist John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was very likely the best watercolor artist in an age of watercolor masters at the beginning of the 20th century. A hundred of his personal best are on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in the exhibition "John Singer Sargent: The Watercolors." They're drawn from two groups purchased en bloc directly from the artist by The Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and are now being shown together for the first time. These are paintings of pleasant activity, if not action, even if the activity is nothing more than lying under an umbrella in long grass reading a book on a sunny afternoon at the top of an Alpine mountain pass. Thanks to Sargent, at least for a little while we can all be the elegant dilettantes in crisp white togs, sipping tea on a sun-drenched terrazza with a view. But these are more than tourist glimpses of a peripatetic life, all flash and no substance. There's substance aplenty, though it's substance veiled behind surface, torn between being seen and staying hidden — substance stealthily depicted by an artist who might be said to have had a queer eye for the Belle Époque. Though the ticket price is steep — so steep that it may not be affordable to see the show in the many small visits the delicate beauty deserves — it's a brilliant exhibition, beautifully mounted in galleries of rich dove-gray or deep blue or maroon, which makes the pleasure of seeing such a rich art offering even better. Through May 26. 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300. — RT

Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938 John and Dominique de Menil were friends with many of the prominent art figures of their day, including the modern painter René Magritte. As a result of their patronage, The Menil Collection holds the most elaborate repository of Magritte's paintings outside of his native Belgium. In many ways, the images of Magritte are just as much a part of pop culture as they are art history. Even if you've never set foot inside a museum, chances are you've seen the raining men of Golconde (1953) or the word/image play of The Empty Mask (1952). In an effort to bring audiences into a more intimate knowledge of Magritte's fascinating Surrealist landscapes and critiques of tangible reality, the Menil has joined the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art to create "Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938," an exploration that examines the early work of his career and identifies the Surrealist experiments that would mark the masterpieces of his later career. I don't normally associate Magritte's paintings with warmth of any kind, but the 80 items in the catalog have been arranged so that they hint at the human impulses behind the iconic, if austere, genius. The years before World War II marked Magritte's development as an artist, and it's on these walls that the Menil's patrons can see the first of his important forays into Surrealism, such as 1927's Entr'acte, in which an assortment of limbs climb out of a darkened landscape, or Discovery, in which the skin of a female nude appears to be made of wood. The exhibition's careful arrangement gives plenty of opportunity to examine less familiar works, especially those making a visit from outside the country. I was previously unaware of Attempting the Impossible, but found myself fascinated by Magritte's representation of the creation process. In the painting, Magritte configures a self-portrait of sorts, which sees his stand-in rendering a naked woman. It's a comical bit, a suggestion that art is not a reflection of reality, but perhaps the artist is the ultimate prime mover of what is real and what isn't. Much of the appeal of this exhibition is in its sheer ambition. One of the highlights has to be the gathering on one wall of The Eternally Obvious, The Depths of the Earth and Celestial Perfections. These are three paintings, but not simply three canvases. Each work is a cluster of canvases that reveal a fragmented image. One is a female nude, another is a landscape and the third is a sky full of clouds. Each canvas is a shard of a larger image, but in turn each canvas is a window into its own world. The Menil exhibition is the first time the three works have been displayed together since their creation in 1930. Together they are a powerful assessment of the modern world and a human condition that is no longer a solid whole but a splintered existence. With so many of these paintings that turn reality on its head in such close proximity to one another, the exhibition allows for an endless stream of contemplation of what in our everyday life is real and what is simply imagined. "The Mystery of the Ordinary" is a must-see exhibition for its close and caring attention to detail of Magritte's progression as an artist and its insight into a shifting world of the past. Through June 1. 1533 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400. — AC

 
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