Mo' Masterpieces

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 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.

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.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer