Washington's National Gallery of Art isn't really schizo, but sometimes you do get that feeling. Exhibition-wise, it seems that the stuff shown in Paul Mellons Neo-Classical palace, John Russell Pope's original museum building on the Mall that was built in 1941, couldn't possibly work as well in I.M. Pei's East Building, the sharp-edged Matterhorn that opened in 1978 next door. So it went this fall, when a pair of exhibitions of two modernist pioneers clashed curiously with a show of top-o-the-heap bravura painting from 18th-century France in decline.
Picasso and Fernande
For an initial head rush, go straight to "Picasso: The Cubist Portraits of Fernande Olivier" in the Pei building -- no blockbuster this, but a feast of art-historical specificity [see also "Whose Melancholy?" by Michle C. Cone]. A lot of us know these works helter-skelter from catalogue and museum encounters, but to see them all together, in the flesh, is quite a thrill. It's Pablo Picasso at full throttle, sweeping us into an engrossing, experimental, sometimes awkward and often emotionally messy series of heads, torsos and figures depicting his model and lover.
OIivier, big-nosed, puffy-eyed and oddly coiffed, may not have been the best looking woman in the world (or so it seems from an exhibited photo) but she certainly was enough of a muse and a partner to serve as the 28-year-old artist's creative absinthe for about nine months in 1909. And as any artist knows, such an arrangement is close to a miracle.
Art history tells us that the Olivier modeling sessions helped Picasso surge from Czanne to Cubism, and you can see this especially when comparing the Mont Ste. Victoirish Female Nude, painted in the summer of 1909, with the impossibly hermetic Woman in an Armchair from 1909-10. But the exhibition's real power comes from losing oneself in -- or is it empathizing with? -- Picasso's uneasy confrontations with the reality of his sitter.
In these paintings, drawings, gouaches and sculptures, Olivier's masculine, muscle-tight head is turned down. It is known that she was sickly during this time, perhaps depressed, too. Not to be too Franoise Gilot about it (Gilot, of course, wrote a famously acid posthumous account of her liaison with Picasso), but was there also anger in the air? Most of the heads seem ready to explode, rendered in razor-ridged exactitude with half-open shark-mouths. Bodies are flayed, a la Marsyus, rather than analyzed, a la Cubism. Noses, foreheads and chins float disembodied like Art-Deco architectural studies. Rage or stylistic evolution? In his rawness, Picasso keeps us guessing.
I have to admit that I exited this show feeling a bit spooked. But no matter, across the balcony was a show of kaleidoscopic tenderness, at its heart -- "The Art of Romare Bearden."
This coup-marking career retrospective for the African-American artist Romare Bearden (1911-1988) starts with early homages to Picasso, Gauguin and Georg Grosz (with whom the artist studied) and a soft, light-leaking abstraction invoking a lovely, diaphanous dream. These are strong works, but Bearden's true calling was as a mixed-media collagist, the focus of the next gallery.
Here are works from 1964 reflecting, in turn, the turbulence of the Civil Rights movement (some accompanied by larger-scale black-and-white Photostats), the spectacle of Harlem street life, and an African-tinged "Prevalence of Ritual." The collage technique's distortions of scale, sudden juxtapositions and quasi-documentary feel are just right for the mid-1960s, a roller-coaster period of change (with a tinge of Pop Art working its way into the formula). Although some of the images have physically faded with time, they really do hit you.
But when the artist goes on to explore farm life (some in fabric), tough men (such as the jam-packed, poignant Tomorrow I May Be Far Away (1966-67), jazz and dance album-cover projects and some very sexy, lush images of a Caribe Eden, among Bearden's last works, the effect is less memorable. Whether that is because collage has become a clich (sorry, but it has), or because Bearden's first, political works of the 1960s were his best (a local critic says so. . . .), or because fatigue sets in (too involving a Berkeley mural, even if you know the city; unappealing and too many monotypes; an unnecessarily exhaustive final section) -- is open to debate.
Still, like Red Grooms, Stuart Davis, Jacob Lawrence, David Hockney or Joan Brown, for instance, Bearden makes high-impact visual art, and that's a good thing. His distinction is in understanding, intuitively and masterfully, the collage esthetic, with exemplars too numerous to mention here. Modern with a capital M, these succeed in being dissonant, challenging, anguished, helter-skelter, pleasurable and technically adventurous all at once, right up there with Hannah Hoch's explorations of collage in Weimar Germany, maybe even better, because Bearden is one of us.
Watteau, Chardin and Fragonard
The old National Gallery building (with, inexplicably, the same wet-marble smell as the new) usually requires a more hushed approach. But upon entering "The Age of Watteau, Chardin and Fragonard: Masterpieces of French Genre Painting," I was seized with grumpy defensiveness. What is possibly learned from paintings of pink-cheeked aristocrats in silk wandering about precious gardens? Leave the froufrou frivolity to my francophile grandmother's once-stylish porcelains, lamps and figurines!
Yet the tony people enjoying those silly picnics and nice-looking peasants interacting in opera-set farms and villages begin to work a certain magic. Is it the slow, dreamy pace of pre-20th century brushwork and light saturation? The lushness of the leaves, stone, stucco and textiles? You begin savoring atmosphere for atmosphere's sake. And then suddenly, something else hits you in the face. . . corniness!
In this exhibition, an affectionate glance or gesture from one member of the gentry to another can send chills down the spine. Later paintings (a deathbed scene, suckling puppies, a banished pauper) can be deeply wrenching. Blame it on the Guggenheim's "1900" show if you like, or artists like John Currin and Bill Viola, but such open expressions of Neo-Victorian sentiment and drama are once again hip. A National Gallery wall label states that "enlightenment ideas of education of children, bonds of family and social justice" spurred French genre painting as the 18th century progressed. How Jeffersonian and not at all Marie Antoinette. I like it!
Still, there's Fragonard. Well, there's one Fragonard. That outrageous image of ancien regime decadence, La Gimblette (Young Girl Plays with her Dog) (1774-75). I lingered for several moments to see how people were responding to this well-to-do nymphet in the froo-froo-est of beds using the bushy tail of her pet, it would appear, to, er, achieve orgasm. Not one person winced, snickered, or even seemed to pay attention. Was this why they had the French Revolution? What a party! But why is everyone at the National Gallery so nonchalant?
Out the front door, I said to myself, Washington is not a bad art town (art in museums, that is). But for God's sake, keep alert! Even my grandmother would have been scandalized by that naughty girl.
SIDNEY LAWRENCE is a writer and artist living in Washington, D.C.