May 5, 2013

At PMA, a dazzling collection starring icons of Modernism


Through Sept. 8, the Portland Museum of Art will be much more than it usually is. Icons of Modernism have made their way to summer in Maine.

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L’Estaque,” oil on canvas by Paul Cezanne, 1879-83

Images © The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The William S. Paley Collection

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“Washerwomen, Arles,” oil on burlap by Paul Gauguin, 1888

Additional Photos Below



WHERE: Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square

WHEN: Through Sept. 8

HOURS: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday; until 9 p.m. Friday

COST: $5 surcharge in addition to regular admission of $12 for adults; $10 for seniors and students with ID; $6 for ages 13 to 17; free for ages 12 and under

INFO: 775-6148;

Even if you have never actually seen any of the William S. Paley Collection's 60 paintings, drawings and sculptures, you will recognize many of them in "A Taste for Modernism."

From a curatorial standpoint, the show is a fait accompli, because it comprises the collection Paley bequeathed to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1990. But Paley himself was the lifeblood of MoMA. For more than 50 years, he helped lead the (arguably) most important American museum of all time.

There are various valid filters through which to consider this show, including: One man's personal art collection; an element of MoMA's collection; a collection dynamically and inextricably bound to the cultural and institutional growth of MoMA; or simply as individual major works of art.

From its start, MoMA adopted a polemically linear approach to its presentation of Modern art. The art was hung in rooms with a single direction through which visitors had to flow. It had a theory, and it sought to persuade. And, boy, did MoMA work its magic on American culture.

MoMA's history can explain some apparent anomalies in the PMA show, such as the distortedly discomfiting 1962-63 Francis Bacon triptychs. (I remember the trio of gold-framed Bacons on MoMA's first floor in the 1980s.)

However, the collection is so overwhelmingly strong that it's almost impossible not to get caught up in individual or small groups of works.

The first thing you see just might change how you understand Maine coastal painting. Paul Cezanne's "L'Estaque" (1879-83) is not only a masterpiece, it was owned by Claude Monet. It is quintessential Cezanne -- an unusual but serenely structured and value-attenuated whole painted with forcefully staccato but rhythmic pulses of brushwork that intertwine both spatially and as surface. (I suggest looking to the pink triangle in the lower center next to a flat, vertical rectangle to consider what they are doing there.)

The first room echoes MoMA's original didacticism by facing off Gauguin's masterwork "Seed of Areoi" (1892) opposite one of the greatest Fauvist canvases, Andre Derain's "Bridge over the Riou" (1906). Together, they make the case that Gauguin's indulgently vivid palette helped spawn Fauvism, but in truth, they reveal the brilliance of each other.

Derain's Fauvist-era work has always been my favorite representational painting. While the "Bridge" is a coloristic triumph, Derain's "Seine at Chatou" (1906) is a structural and compositional tour de force. By following a startlingly long and straight tree branch visually through the far space and sky across the river, Derain mobilizes elegantly subtle geometry to enter the space from the painting's surface.

Conversely, Derain's 1933 "The Rehearsal" is the show's enfant terrible. The bleak and bleary depiction of two classically draped actors gesticulating theatrically was unfinished when Paley visited the artist's studio and no doubt bought it through pity or pressure. (That Paley later persuaded Derain to finish it hints that Paley never particularly liked it.)

MoMA's story of Modernism resembles a tree beginning with Cezanne as the trunk and then branching out with Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Picasso, Matisse and so on. This is also the narrative of the Paley Collection and its handsome installation by the PMA's Margaret Burgess.

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Additional Photos

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“The Musketeer,” oil on canvas by Henri Matisse, 1903

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“Bridge over the Riou,” oil on canvas by Andre Derain, 1906

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Andre Derain’s oil on canvas “The Seine at Chatou,” 1906

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“The Architect’s Table,” oil on canvas mounted on panel by Pablo Picasso, 1912


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