Gustave Moreau, Oedipus and the Sphinx (1864), oil on canvas, 81-1/4″ x 41-1/4″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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“Why on earth,” a colleague asked, “would you want to write about Gustave Moreau?” The answer, I think, is plain to anyone interested in the byways of twentieth-century art; Moreau (1826–1898) is an obligatory footnote in art history texts because of his role as the teacher of Henri Matisse. (Georges Rouault and Albert Marquet were also pupils.) In the catalogue accompanying the exhibition Gustave Moreau: Between Epic and Dream—seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from June 1 to August 22— Douglas W. Druick, Senior Curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, writes that “Moreau’s dream of a symbolic language found its true voice” in “the joyous color, graceful arabesques, and decorative sensibilities of Henri Matisse.” The organizers of the show seek to establish Moreau as a pivotal Modernist antecedent–by linking him not only with Matisse, but also with the Symbolists, the Surrealists, and the New York School–and to move him into the ranks of the masters. They find themselves thwarted, however, by the work itself. When Druick begins his statement with a cautionary “perhaps most surprisingly,” we begin to wonder about the value he places on Moreau’s particular voice. For it is impossible to experience the art featured in Between Epic and Dream as anything other than kitsch: eccentric, ostentatious, and not unaccomplished kitsch, but kitsch nonetheless.
A better question is why has the Met dedicated space to such a trifling painter? Perhaps Moreau’s fin-de-siècle ambiance was felt to be resonant with our own flustered era. Certainly, his marginal status mirrors our own culture’s fixations. That his pictures were created concurrent with–and in opposition to–the radical art that came to be known as Impressionism makes him something of an underdog, and who doesn’t like to root for the underdog? I only wish that the art was worth rooting for. Moreau’s ponderous and theatrical paintings don’t even have the benefit of camp appeal. Incapable of organizing a picture as a fluid totality, Moreau’s compositions are choppy and his encyclopedic imagery overwrought. Only in a casual, pen-and-ink self-portrait (c. 1880–1890) does the life of art brighten this cloistered and gloomy show. “I have allowed my imagination free play,” said Moreau, “and I have not been led astray by it.” Yet Between Epic and Dream betrays an artist who probably would have profited from less time spent plumbing the shallows of his own sticky universe.
In the May 28, 1864 issue of Le Monde illustré there is a page of illustrations parodying paintings featured in the Salon of that year. One of the works lampooned was Moreau’s Oedipus and the Sphinx, wherein the clinging figure of the sphinx has been replaced by a jumbo squirrel. Another drawing takes off on Edouard Manet’s Incident in a Bullfight. This was but one of several vituperative spoofs of Manet’s picture, mocking its spatial distortions and perceived stiffness. Attacks on the painting were not the province of cartoonists alone; Théophile Gautier found it “completely unintelligible,” and H. de Callias, writing in L’Artiste, stated that “Manet … has a great deal of imagination, but this is how he abuses it.” The painting that received such condemnation is no longer extant. Manet subsequently divided Incident in a Bullfight into two separate paintings, the iconic Dead Toreador and the lesser known Bullfight. Both were on view at the Frick Collection this past summer in an exhibition titled Manet’s The Dead Toreador and The Bullfight: Fragments of a Lost Salon Painting Reunited.
The show includes the title works, two magnificent Goya portraits reminding us of Manet’s roots, and a vitrine of oddments including the issue of Le Monde illustré mentioned above. This is the first time that The Dead Toreador, now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, and the Frick’s Bullfight have been together since Incident in a Bullfight was returned to Manet’s studio and reworked as two canvases. The alteration of the original picture seems to indicate that Manet agreed with the drubbing the painting received (critical complaints did not compel him, for instance, to change Déjeuner sur l’herbe). At this date, it takes a leap of the imagination to reconcile such distinct works. Manet’s decidedly modern vision, with its compositional jump-cutting, has prepared us for the quirks of each painting as an individual entity (although The Bullfight is extreme even in this case). The somber tone and palette of The Dead Toreador and the brighter and blatantly impastoed Bullfight are radically different, notwithstanding the similarity of their subject. Through the use of x-ray photos, the catalogue proposes several reconstructions of the original canvas and these blueprints-after-the-fact are fun for anyone intrigued by the mysteries of artistic decision-making. We remain, however, with two singular paintings by one of the most gifted artists of the Modernist epoch.
Surrealism: Two Private Eyes, The Nesuhi Ertegun and Daniel Filipacchi Collections—on view at the Guggenheim Museum until September 12—begins at the base of Frank Lloyd Wright’s rotunda with three sterling paintings by Giorgio de Chirico. At the top of the museum’s ramp, the exhibition culminates with nearly forty signature images by René Magritte. Fans of Surrealist art will consider this denouement appropriately stirring. Those who think thirty-six paintings by Magritte is about thirty-five too many will find the above described orbit indicative of the exhibition’s ratio of art to dross. Two Private Eyes contains about seven-hundred pieces–including paintings, sculptures, drawings, collages, books, objects, prints, and ephemera–drawn from the collections of two men whose sole criteria was the Surreal. The Guggenheim has indulged both Mr. Filipacchi and the Ertegun estate, in the presumable attempt at courting donations, by spurning quality control and overstuffing the museum. This is too bad. Pared down to one-fifth of its size, the show would have made an advantageous case for each collector’s taste and Surrealist art in general.
Two Private Eyes features work by such central figures as Joan Miró, Jean Arp, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Yves Tanguy, Joseph Cornell, and Hans Bellmer, as well as a horde of (deservedly) lesser-known talents. Even if one’s tolerance for distant horizons populated by enigmatic thingamajigs is great, the scale of the exhibition is taxing. There is, for example, a wonderful collage by Miró in one of the tower galleries, but one must wade through an abundance of dreck to uncover it. Still, the exhibition includes what amounts to a mini-retrospective of Cornell’s boxes that would have made a fine show in and of itself, and an overview of Tanguy’s oeuvre that makes a more convincing argument for his weird cosmos than one would have thought possible. Even more surprising is how good Dalí looks here. There are not a few of his pictures included that remind us of how schlocky an artist he, by and large, was. Yet, there is one wall at the Guggenheim that features six small panels, all dating between 1930–32, that capture the master of putrefact at the top of his form. And then there is White Calm (1936), a picture that doesn’t escape the illustrative limitations of Dalí’s art, but whose imagery is surprisingly underplayed and whose milky light makes quite an impression even from across the museum’s rampway. The exhibition offers its share of such revelations, but, on the whole, drains the Surrealist ethos of its import and allure. Given the pedestrian nature of the liberated psyches on view, Two Private Eyes makes its strongest case for the benefits of repression.
In contrast to the Guggenheim’s let’s-throw-everything-in-the-rotunda-and-hope-it-will-stick approach, the Museum of Modern Art offered an unassuming exhibition of works-on-paper that extolled the rewards of the discriminating eye. Collecting in Depth: Drawings by Grosz, Schwitters, Ernst, and Klee—seen from May 13 until July 20—was drawn from the museum’s collection and reminds us of what a treasure trove MOMA is when it isn’t derailed by the vagaries of fashion. There were, as to be expected, old chestnuts on view—Klee’s Twittering Machine (1922), for instance—but it was good to see the art of these worthy figures given shape without inflating their accomplishments. Schwitters’s bits-and-pieces aesthetic–making magic, as it were, of the remnants of one’s desk drawer–was evidenced in an all but definitive sampling of collages. Klee’s affable genius for oddball figuration and the exquisitely smudged surface is, as ever, undeniable. Grosz’s clinical line and the moral outrage it carries with it were displayed to bracing effect, and his depiction of urban anomie, Republican Automatons (1920), still haunts and rankles. The only artist Collecting in Depth can’t redeem is Max Ernst. True, The Hat Makes the Man (1920) is a treasure of MOMA’s permanent collection. But, Ernst’s stylistic leapfrogging and flights of fancy can’t obfuscate an art that lacks depth, commitment, and focus. Notwithstanding this Ernstian ebb in quality, Collecting in Depth was a gem.
New York Collects: Drawings and Watercolors, 1900–1950, which was on view from May 20 to August 29 at the Morgan Library, was a stunning grab bag of works-on-paper. The words “grab bag” are used facetiously here, for the diverse variety of styles and genres was unified by an exceptional level of accomplishment. (The great stuff was so astonishing, in fact, that it took the merely good right up with it.) Taking into account the degree of connoisseurship we have come to expect from an institution as remarkable as the Morgan, this comes as little surprise. The Morgan’s first exhibition dedicated exclusively to twentieth-century art, New York Collects was not only a valentine to urban sophistication, but also a confirmation that the first half of this century was an incredible—and incredibly dizzying—artistic epoch.
New York Collects displayed the major drifts of Modernism, but they took a back seat to the quality of the work itself. The flow of the exhibition was rejuvenating. Those of us who have had our fill of Picasso in recent years were reminded, particularly with Two Women (1920), of the splendor he was capable of. That there were works of a comparable stature by Cézanne, Matisse, Miró, Léger, Braque, Bonnard, Mondrian, and Brancusi may be stating the obvious, but in drawings of such magnitude obviousness slips by the wayside. There were quirky pieces as well. I never would have imagined that the name Max Beckmann and the word “rodeo” would occur in the same sentence, but there was Beckmann’s sardonic and not unaffectionate portrayal of Americana in Rodeo (1949). Lesser artists like Frantisâ€™ek Kupka, Roberto Matta, Richard Gerstl, Jean Dubuffet, Charles Sheeler, Raoul Haussman, Jackson Pollock, Wols, and George Bellows were seen to eye-opening effect. Indeed, Bellows’s hellish Mardi Gras (c. 1908), with its Goyaesque blur of charcoal and ink, is the single finest work I have seen by this artist. One could go on at length mentioning other exquisite pieces—my favorites included de Kooning’s Woman, Wind, and Window II (1950) and Dickinson’s Nude No. 3 (1936)—without doing justice to the show’s majesty. Given the sharp and resolute curatorial eye of New York Collects, one wagers the forthcoming exhibition on the last half of this century will be an event not to be missed.
© 1999 Mario Naves
Originally published in the September 1999 edition of The New Criterion.