April 29, 2013

Must-see modernism at Portland museum

The Portland Museum of Art unveils its main event for summer, a gift from a media titan who had an astute eye for art.

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

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“M. de Lauradour,” oil and gouache on cardboard by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1897.

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

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“Two Dancers,” charcoal and pastel on tracing paper by Edgar Degas, 1905.

Additional Photos Below



WHEN: Opens Thursday and runs through Sept. 8

HOURS: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday, with extended hours to 9 p.m. Friday; after Memorial Day, the museum will be open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays

WHERE: Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square

HOW MUCH: $17; $15 for seniors and students with ID; $11 for ages 13 to 17; free for children age 12 and younger

INFO: 775-6148; portlandmuseum.org

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.


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."

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Additional Photos

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“Woman with a Veil,” oil on canvas by Henri Matisse, 1927

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“Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat,” oil on canvas by Paul Cezanne, 1875-76

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Cezanne’s “L’Estaque,” oil on canvas, 1879-84

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“Washer-women,” oil on canvas by Paul Gauguin, 1888


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