It's hard not to view the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's latest marketing campaign, "A Season of Impressionism," with a skeptical eye. A common complaint among art cranks is that the impressionists are the only painters able to entice the general public away from their TVs and into a museum, where the droves can ooh and aah at all the pretty, familiar pictures before descending on the museum store to scoop up mugs, calendars, postcards and -- sometimes -- the catalog. Shows like these can bring in a lot of money (let's just be thankful it's not Star Wars).
But the first thing you'll notice about the two exhibitions kicking off the season -- "Masterworks from El Greco to Picasso in the Phillips Collection" and "French Impressionism: Masterpieces from Copenhagen's Ordrupgaard Collection" -- is that they're not just impressionist shows. In fact, the Phillips Collection offers a rough primer in where the impressionists and post-impressionists came from and what they pointed the way toward.
The selection from the Phillips Collection is the more engaging of the two because Duncan Phillips's ambitions were so focused. Whereas Wilhelm Hansen, the eye and heart behind the Ordrupgaard, was motivated by national pride (the establishment of a first-class collection of French painting in Denmark), Phillips was intrigued with the aesthetics of influence. Phillips wanted to create a conversation between the artworks he collected, to allow us to listen in on the colloquy that's been going on between Western artists for several hundred years. "My arrangements are for the purpose of contrast and analogy," he once said. "I bring together congenial spirits among the artists from different parts of the world and from different periods of time, and I trace their common descent from old masters who anticipated modern ideas."
"Masterworks from El Greco to Picasso in the Phillips Collection" and "French Impressionism: Masterpieces from Copenhagen's Ordrupgaard Collection"
Museum of Fine Arts, Audrey Jones Beck Building, 5601 Main Street
The first gallery rounds up the usual suspects credited with influencing the characteristics that came to be identified as impressionist: Corot's practice of painting outdoors, capturing real light in real landscapes; Daumier's focus on contemporary urban life for subject matter; Delacroix's emphasis on color over line to convey movement and emotion. But the heart of this selection is in the next room: Monet, Degas, Morisot, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Redon, Bonnard and... Chardin? What's he doing here? He's engaged in conversation with Cézanne and Gauguin. His A Bowl of Plums (ca. 1728) and Gauguin's The Ham (1889) flank Cézanne's Ginger Pot with Pomegranates and Pears (1890-93), and what they're talking about is the flattening of the picture plane as Western painting moved from depicting objects in space to setting shapes in a formal arrangement.
The centerpiece of the Phillips exhibit is Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880-81). Phillips deliberately paid a record price when he acquired it in 1923, knowing that would increase the work's stature and put his collection on the map. In a letter at the time, he called Luncheon "one of the greatest paintings in the world." I don't share Phillips's enthusiasm for Renoir, though there is a lovely little oil sketch in the Danish exhibit: Woman in a Meadow, Lise Tréhot (c. 1868). I generally don't care for his modeling of the human face and figure; too often, the people in his paintings strike me as interchangeable, and of all the impressionists, he seems to sail closest to the edge of sentimentality. But this is an impressive painting -- the composition's left-to-right diagonal thrust exerts a powerful pull as your eye ranges across this portrait of the newly ascendant bourgeois enjoying the leisure that had previously been the prerogative of only the aristocracy. But resist the pull a moment, and don't stand back reverently. Come up close and look at the wine bottles and glasses and fruits that anchor the whole painting. Get lost in the amazing alchemical swirls and streaks of colors that give that last swallow of wine in the glass its luminosity, that give the light reflected off the bottle its sheen. Like him or not, the man was a hell of a painter.
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There is nothing in the Danish exhibit comparative to this Renoir, but there are other rewards. Two Corots, The Bridge at Mantes (1850-54) and Hamlet and the Gravedigger (1870-75), point to the loose brushwork that Monet would employ in Seascape, Le Havre (c. 1866) and The Cliffs Near Sainte-Adresse, Overcast (1881-82). In The Cliffs, the brushwork is so loose that the canvas shows through, unifying the composition as well as suggesting the soft, diffused light of a cloudy day reflected off the water. This use of bare canvas as a compositional element can also be seen in the latest of the four Sisley canvases here, Barges from Berry on the Loing Canal in Spring (1896), as well as Cézanne's 1886-87 Mont Sainte-Victoire in the Phillips selection.
While the Phillips exhibit affords an opportunity to understand the impressionists and post-impressionists as a pivotal group of artists connecting the past with the modern, the Ordrupgaard show contains a pleasant surprise, a room of mostly 19th-century Danish paintings, that also underscore just how radical the impressionists were. Of greatest interest here are P.C. Skovgaard and Wilhelm Hammershøi, contemporaries of the Frenchmen. Their works are luminous examples of representational painting, Skovgaard's summery landscapes countered by Hammershøi's haunted melancholy interiors. They are beautifully executed, lovely paintings -- and very conventional when contrasted with the inventive verve the impressionists brought to their depictions of their world.
So perhaps our skepticism should be shelved; it turns out that the first two installments of the "Season of Impressionism" are not just pandering to the crowd. But this doesn't mean the MFAH isn't trying to make a few bucks. Both impressionism shows are ticketed, which means that an adult who is not a museum member will need to shell out $17 to see them (general admission included). This makes taking out-of-town guests to see the shows over the holidays an expensive proposition.
With the collapse of Enron, the irrelevancy of Arthur Andersen, Dynegy's difficulties, and the generally uncertain times, every cultural institution in Houston is hurting right now. But while the insurance costs alone on traveling exhibits like these are enormous, both of these shows have corporate and nonprofit underwriters. The MFAH may be shooting itself in the foot with these high ticketing policies. (After paying $17 each this time, will people come back for the next exhibit?) The museum is also in danger of confounding its role as cultural conservator with that of entertainment impresario. And that's a no-win for everyone.