Not one but three exhibitions are currently vying for attention at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Whether your taste runs to 18th-century British formal portraits by Thomas Gainsborough or turn-of-the-century French intimist interiors and painted screens by douard Vuillard or the searing Expressionist works of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, the National Gallery is the place for you (but be sure to note the varying closing dates for each exhibition).
The first major retrospective of Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) to tour this country offers an exciting selection of the artist's bravura portraits and his undervalued landscapes plus a large roomful of drawings of startling variety. This impressive loan show of more than 60 paintings and 30 drawings, the ideal size for long looking, was organized by the museum along with Tate Britain, where it was seen earlier, and with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where it appears June 15-Sept. 14, 2003.
Gainsborough, along with his arch-rival Joshua Reynolds, was to lay the foundation for the British School. His father, a prosperous merchant in Sudbury, saw his son spending more time sketching outdoors than in school and was suitably impressed by the artistic results to send him to study in London. The young artist quickly became a part of William Hogarth's circle. His William Wollaston demonstrates that by about 1759 he could paint a good likeness and render fabric brilliantly. Growing up in a family in the wool trade seems to have given him a great sense of color and the ability to paint every swatch of satin and brass button with panache from the start.
When he was maturing as a painter, there was no single British style. Many of the best works in English private collections, however, were Flemish or Dutch. These he studied assiduously. Sir Anthony Van Dyck is one touchstone for his work, not that Gainsborough didn't study other Old Masters and borrow what suited him.
In his landscapes, too, he took much from northern painters. The Harvest Wagon (1766) owes the feathery brushwork in the trees to Dutch landscapists, but the pose of the figures, according to the show's excellent catalogue, are actually adapted from a Rubens deposition. Gainsborough's willingness to adapt the Old Masters and bring them to bear on contemporary life set him apart from Reynolds.
The exhibition traces the ascent of Gainsborough as a hard-working society portraitist, devoted to perfecting his craft. Technically, Gainsborough was always pushing himself, even challenging the Royal Academy (of which he was a founding member) to consider drawings as the equal of paintings. He was unsuccessful in this, but his own drawings range widely in materials and approaches if not in themes.
He eventually gave up showing at the Academy, over which Joshua Reynolds was gaining the upper hand. When Reynolds got the nod to be King's Painter on the death of Allan Ramsay, Gainsborough's sensuous technique was forced to take second place to Sir Joshua's colder, more linear approach. At least the artist's patrons disagreed with this assessment.
Along with better-known works are a large number of paintings and drawings that have not been seen before in this country. The only things missing in this retrospective are a pair of royal portraits (unfortunately they do not appear in the catalogue either) and Blue Boy, or more formally, Jonathan Buttall: The Blue Boy, from the Huntington Library in San Marino, Ca., although that collection did provide other gems, like Penelope, Viscontess Ligonier (1770-1).
The show can be seen through May 11, 2003. The catalogue is $60 in hardcover and $45 in softcover.
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"douard Vuillard" is a mammoth exhibition of more than 200 pieces that can feel more like 400. The show is curated by a flotilla of art historians led by Guy Cogeval, director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and author of the catalogue raisonné of Vuillard's paintings and pastels, due out this year. The show is a specialist's dream, but even a little of late Vuillard turns out to be a lot.
In the exhibition and catalogue Cogeval makes a convincing case for Vuillard's being deeply influenced by the avant-garde theater. During the 1890s, Vuillard (1868-1940) and his fellow Nabis (literally "prophets," who wanted to remake French art) participated in puppet shows and many other theatrical events from which Vuillard got his love of violent lighting effects, his use of distemper and -- persuasively argued by Mr. Cogeval -- his desire to manipulate those in his life like characters in a play.
Using his all-female household, headed by his adoring mother, whom Vuillard called his muse, Vuillard pushed his spinster sister into an unhappy marriage with his rakish friend and fellow-artist Kerr-Xavier Roussel. The couple even lived with Vuillard and his mother for several years. Never marrying himself, consumed by hatred for his looks for much of his life and passions for married women for even longer, this inbred world of flirtation, passion and familial love was what Vuillard need to create the psychologically revealing, finely nuanced interiors that are his finest works.
Interested in design as simply another phase of art-making on a par with painting, Vuillard also turned out some exceptional painted screens and other decorative pieces. The many photographs of and by the artist are especially helpful in getting a feel for the vastly different spaces he inhabited -- the cramped quarters he shared for so long with his mother and the country estates which he decorated for his mistresses.
After his own sexual awaking around 1900 and especially after the death of his mother, Vuillard's work opens up in size and space. He gradually becomes a society portraitist, albeit a leftist-leaning one, who laces his portraits of many plutocrats and former lovers with disdain. Some are pallid, if he has a bean of respect for the subject. But some of these people, he just plain hated. Even if Vuillard meant them to be ironic, these paintings are sickly and ugly.
After the show, despite the long slog, I ran back to the Small French Paintings rooms at the National Gallery to bask in some of Vuillard's earlier works from the 1890s to clear my eyes.
The exhibition remains on view through Apr. 20, 2003. The catalogue is loaded with great information, and because it's so heavy it can also be used as a doorstop. It costs $65 in hardcover, $40 in soft.
"douard Vuillard" was organized by the National Gallery of Art and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (where it will be seen May 15-Aug. 24, 2003) and by the Runion des muses nationales/ Muse d'Orsay, Paris (it goes on view at the Grand Palais, Sept. 23-Jan. 4, 2004), and by the Royal Academy of Arts, London (where it ends its tour, Jan. 31-Apr. 18, 2004).
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"Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1880-1938" is less a retrospective than an exhibition focused on the most productive years of the tragic life of this German Expressionist. The show contains paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures, mainly from the years between 1908 and 1920.
The exhibition does a great job of showing the young, exuberant artist assimilating every new artist and "ism" that he sees. Although Kirchner rarely admitted to influences, you can watch him absorbing Fauvism, van Gogh, Gauguin, and ethnographic art -- Pacific island carvings, Indian art and especially African tribal art.
Kirchner also believed in studying the Old Masters of Germany. He considered himself not just an artist but a German artist. His woodcuts and other prints owe much to his study of Albrecht Drer.
In 1905 in Dresden he formed the influential group Die Brcke (the Bridge) with Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. Emile Nolde, Max Pechstein, the Swiss Cuno Amiet and others later joined them. Their works featured broad, vigorous brushstrokes, strong colors and simplified realist compositions.
Kirchner drew constantly, moved from medium to medium in his studio, and created assured and sexy work after work. His art appeared in many galleries in Germany.
He moved the group to Berlin in 1911, where it splintered. By 1912, Kirchner was creating the edgy urban scenes, jagged as the city's psyche, for which he is best known. Speed and decadence are equally celebrated in his figures and backgrounds.
When WWI broke out, he feared he would be drafted and volunteered instead. What followed was a nervous breakdown and a physical collapse, possibly caused by alcohol and drugs taken to escape service, which he dreaded as potentially leaving him dead or maimed and unable to paint. He ended up maimed anyway, and spent most of the rest of his life recovering and trying to paint. The exhibition contains some harrowing visions from this time, which certainly rank among his best works.
The final blow for Kirchner came when the Nazis singled out his art for special ridicule in the "Degenerate Art" show of 1937, when more than 600 of his works were removed from German museums. This most German of artists, already living in Switzerland for many years, committed suicide in 1938.
The exhibition is well selected and only a bit stingy in the number of painted wood sculptures included. It may not be a definitive retrospective, but Kirchner's best years are explored in depth. Since the last major Kirchner exhibition in this country was 30 years ago, one can only be thankful for this show with its many surprises from private collections here and abroad.
"Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1880-1938" is on view through June 1, 2003. The exhibition was organized by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Royal Academy of Arts, London. A slightly abbreviated version of the show appears at the Royal Academy, June 28-Sept. 21, 2003. The catalogue is available in softcover for $39.95.
N. F. KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.