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"The Odyssey Continues: Masterworks from the New Orleans Museum of Art & Private New Orleans Collections".

"The Odyssey Continues: Masterworks from the New Orleans Museum of Art & Private New Orleans Collections" Wildenstein & Company, New York. November i6, 20006-February 9, 2007

Natural disasters--as opposed to the manmade variety such as wars and revolutions-have historically shown a peculiar kind of selectivity when it comes to works of art. The catastrophic earthquake that virtually destroyed Messina in 1908 claimed thousands of lives, yet left many of the city's artistic treasures, if not intact, at least recoverable. On November 4, 1966, an unimaginably violent flood inundated the city of Florence, submerging its center for the better part of a day in a poisonous cocktail of water, dirt, organic detritus, and black heating oil--in certain areas as much as eighteen feet deep. The city's vast artistic patrimony suffered irreparable losses, whereas the human toll was almost negligible.

Of the two dramatic events just mentioned, the hurricane that devastated New Orleans in August of last year can claim closer similarity to the former than to the latter. Of course, as in Messina, the ordeal suffered by its citizens was excruciating. Yet in contrast, and by all accounts, much of the older and more distinguished architecture of the Crescent City has survived. So has its principal repository for the visual arts: the New Orleans Museum of Art. To be sure, structural damage was severe, but the collections came through the maelstrom unscathed; they await reinstallation once extensive repair to the building is completed.

In an exemplary act of enlightened self-interest, the New Orleans Museum of Art has arranged with Wildenstein to make a conspicuous part of its holdings available for viewing in New York. The exhibition, somewhat oddly entitled "The Odyssey Continues" will undoubtedly raise awareness (and funds) to relieve the plight of that institution, but, more importantly, it will allow New Yorkers what may well be their first look at this fine collection, for it's fair to say that even those of us who have visited New Orleans more than once may not have counted the museum among its principal attractions.

The New Orleans Museum of Art was born almost a century ago, the result of a munificent gift by a Jamaican-born Jewish banker named Isaac Delgado. The institution he helped found carried his name but only until 1971--a typically melancholy destiny for benefactions not sufficiently endowed or contractually iron-clad. The change in identity, however, coincided with the institution's "coming-of-age": by then it had fully transformed itself from a clubby, parochial venue for regionalist art into a professionally managed undertaking, seriously engaged in showing and collecting a full spectrum of European and American painting, sculpture, and works of art. A significant impulse in this direction was a 1953 exhibition of important French paintings from public and private collections, organized in collaboration with Georges Wildenstein. This was followed by a major Van Gogh exhibition in 1955 and, finally in 1961, by a grant of over thirty, mostly Italian, pictures from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation.

Since then, the New Orleans Museum of Art has carefully, but steadily, acquired works, mostly of the French School, in keeping with the city's historical and cultural ties to France. Also, a growing constituency of local collectors has shown its generosity to the Museum by adding important works, particularly of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

On view at Wildenstein is all of the very best that the New Orleans Museum of Art has gathered since its founding, and it fills the sumptuous exhibition spaces admirably: from brilliant Italian "primitives" to excellent examples by some of the greatest "names" of the twentieth century--Picasso, Giacometti, Pollock, et al. There can be no doubt, and little surprise, that France has always been on the (artistic) mind of New Orleans. Two paintings, a century apart, stand out and justify, on their own, a visit: a glorious (and gloriously preserved) View of Tivoli by Claude Lorrain and the equally pristine Toilet of Psyche by Charles Joseph Natoire. They could not be more different, and yet each is supremely French: the Claude in its spiritual, almost transcendental, intensity; the Natoire in the elegant exuberance of its Rococo superficiality--two sides of the same ecu. In this lighter vein, Hubert Robert can hardly be considered a "rare" artist, and one can easily tire of his oft-repeated landscape pleasantries, yet A Park of an Italian Villa, on view here, is irresistibly charming and even strangely evocative. And what is France without its royalty? One is met on the very threshold of the exhibit by a grandly scaled Portrait of Marie Antoinette by one of her favorite painters, the youthful Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun. The Queen's tenue is surprisingly informal, only a crown lurking in the shadowed background to indicate her rank. She is already slightly jowlish, for this is barely ten years before the Convention. It is a splendid symbol of ancien regime magnificence with a provenance as royal as its subject--interesting to realize that as recently as 1981, it failed to sell in a New York auction.

Despite the exhibit's decidedly French accent, its organizers evidently couldn't resist putting the enchanting Portrait of a Boy by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo on the cover of the catalogue. It is barely more than a rapid sketch but shows to perfection with what uncanny ease and proficiency the Venetian master controlled his brush as well as his palette. Another Italian painting is notable not only for its remarkable quality and rarity, but also simply for having found its way in such unlikely company. It is a large, exquisitely crafted composition with a grim allegorical theme: Death Comes to the Banquet Table. An elegant company enjoying a sumptuous dinner is interrupted by a grinning skeleton entering stage right, the ultimate party pooper. It is a brilliant representation by a relatively obscure Florentine seventeenth-century artist, Giovanni Martinelli--the sort of picture that was totally out of favor with prevailing taste for most of the last century. De-accessioned by the Smith College Art Museum in 1954, it fortuitously traveled south to New Orleans two years later. Needless to say, it would today play a starring role back in Northampton.

Of all the exhibited paintings, the one that truly belongs in New Orleans is Edgar Degas' Portrait of Estelle Musson de Gas. Painted during the artist's visit to New Orleans in 1872, it depicts his cousin and sister-in-law in the act of arranging flowers in a vase. Despite its indistinct sketchiness, the image is remarkably vivid and acquires particular poignancy by the fact that the sitter was nearly blind. When the painting was retrieved from an English private collection in the mid-1960s the museum raised the then-conspicuous sum of $20,000 with a spirited "Bring Estelle Home" campaign.

Considering that New Orleans was, during the latter half of the eighteenth century, part of Spain's dominions in the New World, it is surprising that the museum's collection does not include even a token presence from that artistic culture. A welcome dividend of this interesting exhibit, however, is the addition of several works from the private collections of New Orleans. We are thus treated to the presence of a magnificent and glistening Brancusi bronze (on its original base) that made its last fleeting appearance in New York about ten years ago.

The use of the word "masterworks" in the subtitle of the exhibition should be noted: museums and galleries, these days, know all too well that it's the masterpieces that pull in the crowds. We can be thankful here for the rather more cautious--and appropriate-terminology used to describe this wide-ranging anthology.

And even if one were to forego altogether the ample pleasures offered by this exhibit, the catalogue recommends itself as an absolute must. Not only is it a handsomely produced book replete with excellent illustrations, but it also contains a superb essay on the history and culture of New Orleans by Joseph Baillio, Senior Vice President of Wildenstein. Mr. Baillio is a native of New Orleans, a serious scholar who obviously harbors a deep affection for the Crescent City. All the cliches and factoids about New Orleans that are the store of our mis- or half-informed popular culture are carefully put into proper perspective, illuminating, in the process, the grand kaleidoscope that is our most exotic American city. Baillio tells its story with exemplary clarity--and what a story it is! Rising from an insalubrious alluvial plain as a humble trading post, the city and its vast hinterland became, by the early eighteenth century, the object of one of history's most notorious speculative "bubbles." The thousands who had invested their fortunes in John Law's company soon realized that Louisiana was no promised land. And yet in time the city prospered mightily. Its location, at the crossroads of Mississippi and Caribbean commerce, carried the city through every subsequent adversity: financial panics, civil war, military occupation, the abolition of slavery, and, of course, recurring natural calamities.

Undoubtedly, the last of these calamities was the most devastating; this generous loan of New Orleans' artistic treasures should be regarded, above all else, as an exhortation to support that city's rebirth. It also prompts the question: Why not revisit it now, in its hour of need--but, by all means, not without Mr. Baillio's excellent essay in hand as a guide.
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Title Annotation:Exhibition notes; Georges Wildenstein
Author:Grassi, Marco
Publication:New Criterion
Geographic Code:1U7LA
Date:Feb 1, 2007
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