Degas to Picasso at the MFA
Post #803 • June 5, 2006, 6:48 PM • 50 Comments
Other writers have noted that the MFA's collection of early Modern works demonstrates, above all, the degree to which the institution dropped the ball on acquisition after the end of the Nineteenth Century. But in fairness, its holdings of Impressionism constitute one of the best collections of anything, anywhere, made possible by an anomalous alignment of taste, money, and connections. Its earliest Impressionist purchases predate those of the Met, and it's not hard to imagine that sensibilities formed on Monet found themselves inequipped to parse the art surrounding the world wars.
Degas to Picasso covers examples in the collections from the turn of the last century to the mid-60s, and that's its main problem: the work has little in common except that it was all made on the same planet during that time. Evidence abounds of the museum's coming late to the party: the vast majority of the work is on paper, works by some of the greats don't show them in top form, and artists whom fame bypassed appear, only to seem to disappear. The hanging is cluttered and occasionally odd. But taken for what it is, it provides a view of the sprawling landscape of styles that proliferated in the first half of the century.
The show begins with two Degas pastels, one of which eats the lunch of every other work in the show, some 280 pieces that never match its luminosity, compositional snap, or psychological tension. Pass it quickly and return to it, or the 20th Century as represented thereafter will look even more bleak than it was. Even though the exhibition reminds one frequently of what isn't there, it can't be enjoyed that way. Instead, one ought to look at it as an opportunity to get in front of some handsome if minor-league work; a show of semi-precious stones, if not jewels. I jotted down a list: Ossip Zadkine, Felice Casorati, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Gerhard Marcks, Herbert List, Julius Heinrich Bissier. Expats and little masters show up in force. The Marcks statue sings with tuneful Etruscan quirkiness. The Bissier, an egg-oil painting on unmounted linen, made me wonder why he wasn't afforded the acclaim given to Klee.
Working drawings by the perpetually underrated Kathe Kollwitz accompany a plaster sculpture by her, and the drawings show how she collaged her own work in order to develop her imagery. A wall of Beckmann works on paper leads up to a nerve-assaulting still life with three skulls and scattered playing cards, oozing wartime dread. A little drawing of Schiele's wife and her nephew pictures them doll-eyed and lovingly entangled as only Schiele could manage it. A haunting woodcut portrait of a beautiful girl, by Munch, will stay with you a while if you give it some time.
Much of the rest, especially Picasso, has to be viewed as blowing off steam, working out ideas, falling off the horse, or heading towards better works in other collections. A stronger, smaller show or two want to come out of this one: Kollwitz, Beckmann, Kokoshka, and Corinth in the grips of war, or the increasing artistic strain on the human body as illustrated by Degas, Matisse, Gaudier-Brzeska, Munch, Marcks, Picasso, and Giacometti. Instead, we get a demoralizing scramble of work, albeit one with many sublime moments.
Degas to Picasso: Modern Masters runs through July 23.