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What was happening in French painting between 1850 and 1950 forms the theme of "The Controversial Century: 1850-1950." the exhibition showing at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Province town until September 3. Although schools of painting other than the French are represented, the focal point of the exhibition is France. Appropriately enough, non-French paintings relate closely to those forces in French art which form the major stylistic movements of modern painting. Most interesting, however, is the scope of the exhibition. Not what happened, but what was happening dictates the choice of the works of art displayed, and the paintings range over the spectrum of artistic activity in France from the 1850's to the very recent past.
Not only are the acknowledged masters of modern painting represented; their contemporaries, including the dominant painters of the academic tradition, are presented abundantly. Gerome, Petitjean, and Bouguereau hang with Picasso, Matisse, and the Impressionists. And while the exhibition cogently states the dominant stylistic trends of modern French art, its special value lies in its demonstration of what happened to the academic tradition when it was confronted with the innovations of the Impressionists and their followers.
A number of major works of the past century form the core of the exhibition. Monet, Manet, Degas, Cezanne, Gaugin, Renior, Sisley, and Pissarro, and Toulouse-Lautrec are represented proportionate to their value on what must regrettably be called the art-historical market. Two of Monet's studies of Rouen cathedral are here, as is a small study by Manet after Valazquez, anticipating several later works. A self portrait by Van Gogh captures both the texture of the flesh and the introspection of the personality in precise but broad brush strokes moving inward towards the center of the composition. Van Gogh's' 'Portrait d' une femme employs the medium of oils eloquently in conveying the tactile qualities of an aging woman's face.
Among the later names that loom large in the history of French art, Piccasso and Braque are each represented by significant works. A "Cubist Composition" by Picasso hangs beside a "Cubist Composition" by Braque, capturing what surely must have been their moment of closest stylistic affinity. Picasso's Le Charnier presents a development of themes and techniques found in the "Guernica" of a few years earlier. The unfinished painting, executed in 1945, stands with the Guernica at the height of Picasso's vision of the human suffering that forms an integral part of the condition called "war." Contemporaries, both associates and rivals, of Picasso and Braque have substantial representation: Matisse, Leger, Rouault, and others.
Equally interesting to the connoisseur and to the serious student of art history may be the numerous works by painters not completely drawn up in the sweep of stylistic progression but unmistakably and sometimes unwillingly influenced by it. The coloring of lean Leon Gerome's "Diana, chasseresse" demonstrates the power of a limited palette, Gerome, the master of Eakins constructs a mystic vision in unusual tones of blue and silver, evoking a half-horrible world be remembrance that anticipate surrealism.
Hyppolyte Petitjean's attempt to come to terms with academic subject matter using a late Impressionist but revealing "En arcadie" Archaic figures, who might have come from Poussin, disport themselves in structurally significant positions, but the light that diffuses over them breaks up into the pointillism of Seurat. Petitjean's attempt produces something of a curiosity - it is an if the lightheaded figures form Poussin's "Baccahanale" (in Mr. Chrysler's collection) had been suddenly calmed by a curious atmosphere they did not understand, the atmosphere of "La Grande Jatte."
As a complement to the exhibition the Chrysler Museum has several pieces of sculpture on display, including one of four existing young ballet dancers by Degas and a variety of pieces by Rodin. For devotees of assemblage, Kearney's "Chicken Age" will rattle up and down and around at the press of a button. The message of Province town this summer is that in the still shifting sands of artistic fortune the critic is all too prone to narrowness of vision in judging his contemporaries. But the Chrysler exhibit also presents a historical perspective which the critic can survey and begin to mould into an orderly and comprehensive picture of artistic development.
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