Mo' Masterpieces

Girl Before a Mirror may have shades of Matisse, but it's all Picasso.
Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art

Those blurry slides from second-semester art history survey have sprung to life at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. "The Heroic Century: The Museum of Modern Art Masterpieces, 200 Paintings and Sculptures" presents some of the greatest hits of modern art from the stellar collection of the New York-based museum. If you've never made it to the MoMA, here's your chance to see its treasures. The MoMA has come to you.

Matisse's 1909 Dance (First Version) welcomes you to the exhibition. The painting is an iconic image but one usually seen in tiny textbook reproductions. In person, it's more than 12 feet long and eight feet high. The linked arms of the simplified female figures create a sinuous line of peachy-pink flesh. The bodies become rhythmic linear forms against the lush blue background and brushy green foreground.

Look to the right and you see an early Picasso, Boy Leading a Horse (1905-06). It's a precubist, still figurative work showing a naked boy leading a gray horse through a barren landscape. It's a very male and very Picassoid image. The solidity of brush strokes is reminiscent of Cézanne, the Postimpressionist whose analytic approach to form would so influence the cubists. In the next gallery, Cézanne's 1885 The Bather drives the point home with the kind of painting that surely informed Picasso's handling of the figure.


"The Heroic Century: The Museum of Modern Art Masterpieces, 200 Paintings and Sculptures"

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 5601 Main Street

Through January 4; 713-639-7300

The exhibition is a survey that allows you to stroll through a history of modern art beginning with Postimpressionism. In addition to Cézanne, we see Seurat's pale and fastidious pointillism, his attempt to scientifically use color by systematically placing tiny dots of paint next to each other. But his work has always seemed to me more intellectually interesting than visually satisfying. His two fastidious and obsessive harbor scenes in the show seem bland, especially with Gauguin's voluptuous use of color hanging between them.

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Gauguin's painting The Seed of the Areoi (1892) is a product of the artist's stint in Tahiti and his fascination with the "primitive" and the "exotic." The painting depicts a nude Tahitian girl sitting on patterned fabric, surrounded by lush foliage and fruit. Gauguin, who started out as an accountant in a Paris brokerage firm, fled the confines of bourgeois Europe to steal inspiration (as well as a teen mistress) from a vibrant land and its culture. He got some fabulous paintings out of it.

Work by Gauguin's friend, the infamously unstable Dutchman Vincent van Gogh, hangs on an adjacent wall. On view is The Starry Night (1889), an image so often reproduced and appropriated that it has become a fixture in popular culture. The original, with its familiar swirling, roiling forms of earth and sky, has a frenetic texture that makes you feel van Gogh's tightly controlled energy. It looks like a painting made by someone who could afford only one size of brush but made up for it through industrious obsessiveness. Just imagine his hand making all those short, sharp strokes with a tiny paint-laden brush. You want to run your hand over the painting's surface, but there's glass over it -- and you'd get tackled by a museum guard.

Lower-key, moodily psychological works by the symbolists hang at the opposite end of the gallery. The symbolists counted a lot of morose northern Europeans among their ranks; and long, dark, cold winters do strange things to people. In Norwegian Edvard Munch's The Storm (1893), a cluster of women clutch their heads in despair while a lone white figure faces the weather's onslaught directly. But the advancing storm is far more psychological than meteorological. And Belgian James Ensor's Masks Confronting Death (1888) shows a group of masked carnival figures surrounding a dark, moldering skull in a flamboyant red hat. It's a carnival with Death as king of Mardi Gras. Ensor is strange and unsettling and fantastically compelling.

Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt, Austrians whose work emanates languid sexuality, flank Ensor's dark glee. Klimt's Hope, II (1907-08) shows a woman contemplating her swelling pregnant belly, which is partially covered by a flowing cloak, its luxuriant patterns paved with the elegant organic and gilded forms of Vienna's Jugendstil. And Schiele's Portrait of Gertrud Schiele (1909) shows the angularly beautiful form of a young woman with a long elegant neck, upswept hair and a fine-featured profile. Her eyes are closed in sensual introspection, her isolated figure almost a silhouette against the pale ground.

Works by Picasso and Matisse are shown together. The two artists shared a mutual respect and a mutual rivalry, feeding off of each other and sparring verbally and visually. The fauvist Matisse was Picasso's senior by 12 years. In the 1914 Goldfish and Palette, his traditionally dynamic colors are restricted to the orange fish and yellow pear; instead of color, the work focuses on the planes and patterns of space. It's similar to Picasso's cubist handling of space in his 1913-14 Card Player.  

But the influence went both ways; Picasso's riotous handling of color in the 1932 Girl Before a Mirror was surely inspired by Matisse. The head of Picasso's Bather (1908-09) also reminds me of Matisse's 1905 portrait of his wife. But Bather, painted after his seminal 1907 Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (which is part of MoMA's collection but not on view here) is an incredibly awkward step in the development of Picasso's work. It feels like the work of a student attempting to paint in an after-the-fact cubist style. Yes, even Picasso had off days.

But full-blown cubism follows with Picasso and Braque at the helm. Picasso's Ma Jolie and Braque's Man with a Guitar, painted almost simultaneously during 1911 and 1912, are strikingly similar. The two artists worked together, experimenting with breaking down the figure into planes. Two collages by Braque and Picasso are also important, having ushered in the use of quotidian items like wallpaper and newspaper scraps, cut and transformed into geometric elements in the compositions.

The impressionist Monet was still around and painting in 1920, his failing eyesight turning his work into a kind of hazy atmospheric abstraction. The triptych Water Lilies is over 42 feet long, a kind of early installation that seeks to envelop the viewer in a brushy, floating, liquid world. The painting's barely discernable, scribbled ellipses of green lily pads, and the rich blues and verdant greens of the water, lighten into a peachy-pink floral haze sparked with fuchsia. You feel Monet's desire to immerse you in his garden at Giverny.

In stark contrast to Monet are those nutty Italian futurists who thought modern machinery would save the world; out with the old and in with "dynamism." The paintings are influenced by cubism, but it's cubism put in a blender with a dash of anarchy. "Burn the museums!" was the futurists' battle cry. Boccioni's 1913 Dynamism of a Soccer Player is an explosion of form and movement. And his 1913 bronze sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity in Space shows an abstracted figure boldly striding forward. Through his manipulation of form, Boccioni makes static bronze dynamic.

With a more purely abstract form, Brancusi's 1928 Bird in Space is a gleaming, streamlined vertical object that soars toward the sky; it looks like a bird crossed with a rocket. And his 1918 Endless Column, a thick, chunky post of carved wood, angles in and out, implying infinite continuity. It feels as humanly made as the "bird" feels superhumanly made, but each reaches toward the sky in unbounded human ambition.

The later minimalist work of Carl Andre, on the other hand, stays close to the earth. In his 1969 floor of 144 Lead Squares, bold optimism is replaced with a controlled intellectualizing of forms into their most basic shapes. Metal is not molded into contrived forms but set out in a simple grid of flat plates in base, workaday metal.

The show features many icons of abstraction. There's Malevich's 1918 Suprematist Composition: White on White, which emanates the Slavic artist's spiritual aspirations for his suprematist forms, his yearning for secular icons for a new Russia. Works by the Calvinist-raised Dutch artist Piet Mondrian feature rhythmic lines and forms, calling to mind his surprising love of dance and jazz. In Composition with Color Planes, V (1917), the pastel squares seem to skitter across the canvas.

A "readymade" by Duchamp backtracks to the roots of conceptual art. His Bicycle Wheel consists of a bicycle wheel mounted to a stool, the ultimate in absurd, found-object, because-I-said-so assemblage. It is a 1951 reconstruction of the lost 1913 original. I always felt cheated by this later reconstruction -- which is completely ridiculous, especially in the context of Duchamp. It's a mass-produced bicycle wheel and a mass-produced stool, for chrissakes.

The surrealists also make an appearance at the party, still rummaging through the human psyche, but with the Menil Collection in town, we aren't as grateful as we should be. Still, seeing Merit Oppenheim's 1936 Object is a treat. The tiny delicate teacup, saucer and spoon, all neatly lined with fur, are beautiful and poetically absurd.

The gestural outbursts of de Kooning and Pollock dominate the exhibition's abstract expressionist section. De Kooning's 1950-52 Woman I holds up well, but Pollock's 1948 Number I, with all its machismo exuberance, feels like a faded relic. Its canvas has yellowed, and the materials he used haven't aged gracefully, making that kind of self-indulgent expression seem dated. The pop section has a Warhol and a Lichtenstein, and there are some juicy Philip Gustons downstairs. However, the contemporary art section is something of an afterthought. But I suppose we shouldn't be greedy.  

The exhibition's tour of the modern art landscape certainly looks at art history from a specific point of view; the collection is extra-heavy on the white Western males. But any way you look at it, the show has brought a trove of riches to Houston. Visitors will walk through its rooms, greeting old friends and making new ones, all in town on a short visit. If only they would decide to move here.

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