"Becoming Modern" Is an Elegant Small Show With a Big Impact at the Menil

I've been mesmerized by a fingernail -- the one on the right pinkie of Odilon Redon's The Fool (or Intuition), an 1877 charcoal drawing currently on view at the Menil in "Becoming Modern: Nineteenth-Century French Drawings from The Morgan Library & Museum and The Menil Collection."

The fingernail grips your attention like a talon, drawing you into the bizarre world of Redon (1840-1916), a French Symbolist artist whose work foreshadowed the Surrealists of the next century -- and at the Menil, in the next gallery. It takes only eight of his haunting drawings grouped together in one corner of a gallery to make that world all-consuming.

"Becoming Modern" is an elegant small show with a big impact -- the kind that the Menil does so well. In addition to Redon, the exhibit includes Eugène Delacroix, Vincent Van Gogh, Georges Seurat and Paul Cézanne, all artists who worked in France in the mid- to late 19th century -- some even into the 20th. Since this is a joint effort by the Morgan and the Menil, the artists were chosen in part, no doubt, based on whether both collections could offer strong works by them.

But they were chosen also because they tell a compelling story of not an evolution but a transition from an academic art world in which drawing was strictly a discipline designed to prepare artists for the real work of painting and sculpting, to one in which drawings were freed from the strictures of pedagogy to become works of art in themselves.

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Though the Menil works are fewer in number, they easily hold their own and make clear why The Menil Drawing Institute warrants a building of its own, currently under construction. And they foreshadow great shows to come once it's done.

As with Redon, each of the artists in the show has his own little corner that makes a world, but a world in sight of all the others and in communication with them. There's a hint of chronology in the arrangement: Delacroix (1798-1863), the earliest, is just to the right inside the door, and Cézanne (1839-1906), second by birth but almost the most modern of all, is beside him on the left. But really, these artists were working so nearly as contemporaries that chronology is hardly relevant.

Art ideas got stirred in the bubbling art stew of 19th-century Paris over 60 years and came out different -- that's actually the point. That point is almost made by just four works on a single gallery wall, two each by Delacroix and Cézanne, a watercolor each of trees and another of mountains. But what a difference half a century made.

Though moving away from academic strictures, the Romantic Delacroix is still caught up in the dramatic turbulence of storytelling. The almost modern Cézanne has moved to a place of cerebral calm where patches of color and angled shapes make images that echo nature but tell no stories -- a new way of seeing both art and nature that's only a step (maybe only half a step) away from the Cubism of Picasso and Braque and the Fauvism of Matisse. Four works, one wall, point made.

But we should be thankful that the show doesn't stop with those four pieces. There are more works by both Delacroix and Cézanne -- great things like Delacroix's ink drawings of muscled arms and fleshless bones (the Menil) and Cézanne's bathers in watercolor and card player in pencil (the Morgan). There are drawings in conté crayon by Seurat (1859-1891) so modern that one of them, Le Cheval Noir (The Black Horse), set me wondering if American regionalist Thomas Hart Benton had been copying him.

The one slight ringer in the group is Van Gogh (1853-1890), represented by three drawings and a letter. Van Gogh was Dutch, though we tend to forget that, and the letter, to fellow artist Emile Bernard (himself the subject of an eye-opening retrospective in Paris last year), is mostly a plea for a deeper understanding of Dutch painting, not French. The drawings are in fact French scenes, but they could just as well be Dutch, since clearly (judging from the letter) Van Gogh thought of himself as Dutch.

But these days, if you have Van Gogh, you show him. And nationality, in his case, is splitting hairs, since the nation he inhabited was all his own until a deeper understanding of his work made it everyone's.

Though it's also splitting hairs to call any of these artists more nearly "modern" than the others, the presence of Van Gogh's letter in the gallery raises the truly modern specter of words themselves as art.

Written in his perhaps surprisingly small and orderly hand, the only manuscript in the gallery, and in a language -- French -- that most of us won't be able to read with fluency (thank goodness for the English translation), the letter begs to be viewed as another work of art, separate from any meaning the words might have. And in its way, it's just as beautiful as the drawings, done in the same brown ink, and carries an equally strong visual impact.

One of the subtle joys of the show is the consistent excellence of the framing. The Menil (and so, too, the Morgan, it would appear) has always been attuned to the importance of frames. Sometimes they're more beautiful than the works they finish. Not this time, but sometimes. This is no doubt a legacy of the de Menils themselves.

I once wandered into a shop in Paris naively thinking I'd buy the little gold frame in the window. Perhaps taking pity on my cluelessness, the shopkeeper gently let me know in the course of conversation that he'd just been in Houston showing frames to Madame de Menil. (See, Parisians can be kind to bumbling tourists sometimes.) Needless to say, I didn't buy the frame -- hand-carved, 17th century, gold-leafed, I've forgotten now how many thousands -- but maybe it's on one of the drawings in this show. It wouldn't be a waste of time to set aside a special visit just for looking at frames.

Oh, what a wonderful show is "Becoming Modern." But wait, there's more. As a sort of prelude and coda, there's a related little unnamed show right outside the gallery in the main hall. You have to pass it as you enter and leave. There are five oils from the permanent collection, two Matisses, a Picasso, a Bonnard and a Vuillard (six if you count the Cézanne oil just inside the gallery, and you should). If the main attraction is "Becoming Modern," this additional exhibit might rightly be called "Being Modern." It's the one that takes you that last half-step from Cézanne to modernism.

I remember a time years ago when a now-departed Menil curator with a magic eye had Cézanne's Arbres-Le Tholonet (Trees-Le Tholonet) of 1900‑04 and Picasso's Cubist Femme Nue (Female Nude) of 1910 -- one of the most important paintings in Houston -- side by side. The instant I saw them together, I understood all the reams I'd read about Cézanne and modernism. How nice that they're once again so close together. You can't quite get the effect of yesteryear, since they're not quite side by side, but you sort of can if you stand right inside the door of the gallery and glance at Cézanne to your right and Picasso in the hall, though the guard and other gallery-goers may resent the obstruction.

If I could pick one thing to take home with me from all those items in the show -- I'm sure you've played that game yourself -- it would be the little Vuillard here, Le Jardin des Tuileries (The Tuileries Garden): small, seldom on view (so surely they wouldn't miss it), browns and blues and mauves, the essence of refined, cultured, modern nature in fin-de-siècle Paris.

Thanks to the masterful work of Jennifer Tonkovich, the Eugene and Clare Thaw curator of Drawings and Prints at The Morgan Library & Museum, and Michelle White, curator at The Menil Collection, this show won't leave my mind. It's gone with me everywhere since I first saw it, and I've already gone back for refresher looks and detail-checking. It's one of those rare shows that get richer as I re-view them in my head, and one that's added now essential elements to my art education.

Spectacular it is not, as some other shows claim to be. But superbly beautiful and soul-satisfying? Ah, yes. It should be on many best-of-the-year lists when folks compile them for 2014-15. It will definitely be on mine.

"Becoming Modern: Nineteenth-Century French Drawings from The Morgan Library & Museum and The Menil Collection" Through June 14. 1515 Sul Ross, 713‑525-9400, www.menil.org.


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