The world is full of paintings and artistic expressions that everyone should see when given the chance: “The Mona Lisa,” the Sistine Chapel or any one of Claude Monet’s water lilies come first to mind.
Beginning Thursday, a good half-dozen artworks of similar stature will be in Maine as the Portland Museum of Art opens its major summer exhibition, “The William S. Paley Collection: A Taste for Modernism.”
The exhibition includes works by many of the most accomplished painters in the history of modern art: Edgar Degas, Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, among others. Significantly, the Paley collection features works by those artists that signal key moments and marks of accomplishment in their careers.
By definition, modern art is broad and diverse, and encompasses many styles and aesthetic concerns, said Margaret Burgess, associate curator of European art for the PMA. Around the turn of the 20th century, artists in Europe began rejecting traditional narratives and representational work, and embraced new approaches to conventional subjects. They experimented with their expression, and explored color and form in radical ways.
Perhaps because of his interest in what was then new media, Paley embraced modernism. His collection represents some of the most important painters at the top of their games, Burgess said.
Picasso’s “Boy Leading a Horse” — which, at more than 7 feet in height, will dominate the central gallery at the PMA — gives the show its central talking point. This richly composed oil-on-canvas rendering of a naked young man leading a rein-less horse across a field is stark in its muted colors, alarmingly revealing (the boy hides nothing) and offers a curious narrative that begs more questions than it answers.
This is Picasso at the pivotal moment of his career. Soon after this painting, he broke into cubism. This is the artist in 1905, knocking at the door of something new and different. And it expresses his growing awareness of his own power, confidence and authority as a painter.
Another seminal piece is Degas’ “Two Dancers.” This drawing — a large charcoal and pastel on tracing paper — was also completed in 1905, and represents a motif that Degas had explored famously many years prior to this perfectly sculpted portrait of two dancers dressed in tutus, preparing for performances.
It evokes emotion, poise and the humanistic nature of performance, as well as the artist’s ability to capture with succinct quality the precision and delicacy of his subject.
‘NOW YOU CAN GET CLOSE’
There are many more: Paul Gauguin in Tahiti; Matisse’s exquisite, voluptuous nude, “Odalisque with a Tambourine”; and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s curious “M. de Lauradour,” a portrait of a red-bearded man, pipe in mouth, seated at a table and staring off to the side.
When viewed in person, these pictures inspire a gasp of recognition. We’ve seen them in textbooks and art history books, and now we can see them in person.
“Now you can get close to them and look at the brush strokes and get a sense of how the artist made these paintings,” Burgess said.
In all, the traveling Paley collection includes more than 60 pieces comprising a greatest hits of modern art, told in vibrant colors and with a script made for Hollywood.
Paley’s life spanned most of the 20th century. He was a media titan best known for his tenure as head of CBS in its early days. He was also passionate about art, and in the 1930s began collecting modern art as a vocation. He had great taste and the financial means to buy what he wanted.
“He had all of this art in his home. This was a private collection that hung on the walls of his home,” Burgess said ” ‘Boy Leading a Horse’ was in the foyer of his New York apartment. When you came to visit, this is what you saw.”
A committed philanthropist, Paley also became a key player at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which was founded in 1929. Over the years, he served as patron, trustee, president and board chairman at the museum.
Paley died in 1990, and left his collection to MoMA. It has toured to almost two dozen museums around the country. Portland is the only one in New England.
Portland got this show because the honorary chair of the PMA’s recent Winslow Homer campaign, George Gillespie, was one of Paley’s lawyers and serves on the Paley foundation board. Gillespie has a home on Peaks Island in Portland, and put in a good word for the PMA to host this show, said museum director Mark Bessire.
The Paley collection was in San Francisco before Portland, and will head to Quebec after it leaves Maine. It has one more stop after that, then rests in New York for good.
Lilian Tone, assistant curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA, said the Portland museum’s long exhibition history in European art prepared it well for this show.
The Isabelle and Scott Black Collection and the Albert Otten Collection allow the museum to exhibit exceptional examples of European art, she said. The quality of those collections and the exhibitions the museum has built from them made the PMA a perfect candidate to host the show.
“This museum’s track record allows it to do this show,” she said. “The museum has an amazing record of keeping the collections in high standards in terms of the installation of its shows.”
A GOOD FIT FOR MAINE
In addition, the Paley paintings work well in Maine because of Maine’s own history with modernism. John Marin, Marsden Hartley and other Maine-centric artists created the work they did because they were so heavily influenced by European modernism.
The paintings in the PMA exhibition were precisely the paintings those artists were looking at after the turn of the century.
“They were looking to Europe,” Bessire said. “I think it’s important that we view this work as a platform for American modernism that Maine is known for. You look at these paintings, and it’s not a far cry from the work created by the modernists who came to Maine. All of them went to Paris to see this work and these artists.”
As was the case with its Winslow Homer exhibition last fall, the museum will levy a $5 surcharge on top of its regular admission price. That means adults will pay $17 to see the exhibition.
Bessire said the surcharge would not become the norm, and was necessary because of the costs associated with hosting an exhibition of this stature. In addition to increased security, the costs of insuring the show are higher than normal because of the value of the work.
“We feel it’s a reasonable fee when you bring this kind of work to the museum,” he said.
Bessire expects somewhere around 75,000 people to see the exhibition before it closes Sept. 8. The timing is perfect, not only because of the busy summer tourism season, but also because the exhibition will be open over three major holidays: Memorial Day, July 4th and Labor Day.
Burgess hopes visitors come for second looks. There are a lot of paintings in the exhibition that cover a lot of artistic territory. While it showcases Paley’s “deep commitment” to modern art, it also reflects his interest in Post-Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism.
There’s also a small taste of American realism with works by Edward Hopper and the surrealism of the Spanish artist Joan Miro, she noted.
Burgess called attention to two other paintings: One by Gauguin, the other by Cezanne.
The Gauguin, “The Seed of the Areoi” from 1912, is an oil-on-burlap depiction of a young naked Tahiti woman (who happened to be the artist’s mistress) holding a sprouting mango seed with other colorful fruit on a table beside her. The symbolism is rampant, and the subject mysterious in her naked pose. Most impressive may be the colors: The burlap is awash in the lush colors of the exotic South Pacific paradise.
Cezanne’s “L’Estaque,” from the early 1880s, is a nice landscape painting of the small French fishing village favored by artists of that time. Many came here to paint, and Cezanne’s depiction captures a view with rooftops in the foreground and the hills and water beyond.
It’s a beautiful, peaceful painting that is notable for at least two reasons. One, Cezanne employed many different painterly techniques on this single effort, including loose, rolling brush strokes in his puffy white clouds and firm, almost pointillist brush work in the rocks and trees.
Second, Claude Monet owned this painting before Paley. The collector purchased it from Monet’s son in the 1930s.
“Paley had the means, which meant that he had access to all the great works,” Burgess said. “This is a great example of that.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: