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Rare masterpieces from a hidden collection.

ONE of the greatest art collections in the world went on show for the first -- and only -- time in Europe recently at the Music d'Orsay in Paris. The exhibition, entitled From Cezanne to Matisse: Masterpieces from the Barnes Foundation, comprised seventy-two works from one of the most extraordinary collections of French paintings of the later part of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. The works by Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse, Manet, Monet, Degas, Seurat, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Douanier Rousseau, Picasso and Modigliani could not have found a better setting for this former main line railway station with its elegant facade and airy glass and iron structures enabled the collection to be shown in true style and splendour.

Assembled by Dr. Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951) from 1912 until his death -- but more especially between the two world wars -- thanks to the fortune he made from an antiseptic which he developed and patented, the collection of the Barnes Foundation amounts to almost two thousand works of art, amongst which is a magnificent collection of French paintings, covering the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist periods. Despite the wealth of its collections up to now, the Barnes Foundation, in Merion, Pennsylvania, not far from Philadelphia, has remained relatively inaccessible to the general public. Indeed if Albert Coombs Barnes had his way the collection would never have been shown, as the physician kept his collection under wraps, specifically precluding access to it. When he died he left specific instructions that public access to his collection was not to be granted. It took a court order ten years later to ensure that the collection was opened for weekend viewing, and recently the necessity of major repair work on the Foundation's premises led to the collection being lent for a travelling exhibition which began at Washington's National Gallery of Art.

Contrary to the impression that you may have gathered, Albert Barnes was, in the words of Horace Mann Bond, President of Lincoln University, (a distinguished private and predominantly African American school founder in 1854), 'a very great American . . . an original American personality'. It was Barnes' conviction that ordinary people -- rich and poor, black and white, educated and uneducated -- can understand and share in the full range of aesthetic experience. His achievements in the realms of art, education and serious aesthetic scholarship, his optimism about American values, civil rights, and race relations were substantial, says Richard J. Wattenmaker, Director of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. 'The essence of Dr. Barnes's legacy, which holds decisively contemporary meaning, is an abiding faith in the common man'. A bold and original collector, Dr. Barnes left his mark on art and education, as he did on chemistry and business.

My only criticism of the exhibition at the Musee d'Orsay was that the finest works were to be found in the first section rather than liberally sprinkled throughout the show. This section featured twenty Cezanne canvases, sixteen Renoirs, as well as a striking collection of Manet and Monet. Undoubtedly the most impressive of the Cezannes was the series, The Card Players. In the larger canvas the three players seated at the table are painted with great amplitude, the stern folds of their bulky clothes amplified by their broadly sloping shoulders and ham-fisted hands, while closely watching the game behind them a man stands smoking a pipe. However, the smaller version of this painting showing two players, one of whom is actually smoking a pipe, achieves a greater degree of intimacy and involvement.

Among the other Cezanne oils were two portraits of his wife, the famous and controversial Bathers at Rest (Les baigneurs au repos), and the various landscape and still life scenes. In the latter category I would single out Compotier, Pitcher, and Fruit (Nature morte), a picture remarkable in its absolute resolution and grandeur which stands amongst the most joyous and sumptuous of his career. The sensuality of the fruit and objects is palpably felt, with the result that Nature morte is a work which comes vividly to life.

Though he was essentially a Parisian boulevardier, Manet was well acquainted with the life of the sea and indeed spent six months on a training ship sailing between France and South America. His depiction of the daily lives of seamen and fishing boats is brilliantly conveyed in Tarring the Boat (Le bateau goudronne). This represents the powerful image of a tilted hull in the process of being made watertight with the application of tar. While the picture is a factual record of fishermen at their labours nothing could be further from an anecdote or genre scene than this poetic evocation of three natural elements, almost violently contrasted at the heart of the painting: fire, wood and water.

Of the Monet selection two works really catch the eye. Madame Monet Embroidering (Camille au metier) is a serene, beautifully composed painting, depicting the artist's wife wearing a colourful, brocaded dress, busily engaged in the art of embroidery in what appears to be an alcove in the garden. Like Madame Monet's handiwork the paint surface is complex and carefully woven, creating a particularly rich and pleasing visual experience. The other notable exhibit was The Boat Studio (Le bateau-atelier), showing a barge with its back doors wide open and the artist visible, bending forward, painting the scene. Indeed between 1871 and 1878 Claude Monet lived in Argenteuil, a town on the Seine about fifteen minutes by train from Paris. In 1873 he had a small boat studio made so that he might paint from the water. Monet accurately records the effects of colour and light, while the atmosphere of peace and tranquillity is strongly conveyed.

Mention the name Renoir and it would no doubt conjure up images of middle class couples picnicing by the river bank but there was far more to the artist's output than this. Indeed the full range of Renoir's career could be illustrated solely through his depiction of the female nude and the group of Renoir nudes in the Barnes Foundation alone includes a complete series. The most impressive on show was Torso, also called Before the Bath or The Toilette (Buste de femme), depicting a young woman with long, black eyelashes, naked to the waist, carefully arranging her hair. Here Renoir sought to preserve the individuality of his model, transposing the modelling of flesh and physiognomic detail with a firm yet fluid handling of paint. A work which is both sensual and enticing.

In what appears to be a veritable treasure trove of Renoir masterpieces, it would be invidious to pick out the best but let me just describe some of the more memorable works. His portrait of Jeanne Durand-Ruel, later Mme Albert Edouard Dureau, the daughter of Paul Durand-Ruel, Renoir's dealer, is one of his earliest and most appealing works. The demeanour of the little girl is at once shy and flirtatious, while her dress is tied with a colourful sash and complemented by a charming pair of boots. The palette of blue, grey and green is quite cool, heightening the delicacy of the flesh tones, and the detailing of the hair is remarkable for its simple juxtaposition of blue, mauve and yellow hues. Leaving the Conservatoire (La sortie du Conservatoire) can be compared to Renoir's most famous painting of this period, The Ball at the Moulin de la Galette, and is probably the most ambitious work of the decade. The title refers to the school of performing arts in Paris, outside the front door of Renoir's studio on the rue Cortot in Montmartre, and shows two girls chatting to two young men as they leave the conservatory, while groups of individuals are seen conversing in the background. The simplicity of the colour scheme, which is deliberately restrained, imbues Renoir's figures with monumentality and strength, while enhancing the freshness of the flesh tones. Ironically this magnificent painting does not appear to have been exhibited during the artist's lifetime.

I was also particularly taken with Sailor Boy -- Portrait of Robert Nunes (Jeune garcon sur la plage d'Y port). Robert Nunes was approaching his tenth birthday when he posed for Renoir. Standing confidently in a brilliant blue sailor suit with white piping, hand on hip like a proud young prince, the boy glances at the viewer with an assurance surprising for his years, no doubt anticipating an adventurous life ahead. Renoir here exploited a long-standing tradition of aristocratic portraiture where male children were represented in costumes and with attributes that evoked the brush and manly roles they might assume in adult life. Equally admirable was Beach Scene, Guernsey (Enfants au bord de la mer a Guernesey), in which three young girls in straw hats and short skirts happily converse while, on the left of the picture, two boys play in the sand. The island's rugged beauty and the pleasantly informal seaside sociability that flourished there intrigued the artist. 'Nothing is more amusing, while one is strolling through these rocks, than surprising young girls ready to bathe; even though they are English, they are not particularly shocked', he wrote. Here Renoir fascinatingly observes and records figures caught up in the animated play of light.

Mention must also be made of his magnificent The Luncheon (Le dejeuner), an interior scene showing a bearded man (said to be the oarsman M. de Lauradour) enjoying a meal with a lady (possibly his wife). Renoir shows a clear concern for precise details such as the wainscoting, the wallpaper design, the shapes of the glasses (with the remnants of wine from the lunch) and plates on the table, the couple's casual attire, even the ring that decorates the man's little finger. Indeed all these details help particularise the scene and enable the viewer to share the intimacy of the occasion.

One of the most important paintings of Seurat's career and one of the artist's most ambitious works is Models (Poseuses). This canvas is painted on the same monumental scale as the history paintings at the official Salon. Outwardly the picture shows three female figures in a state of undress, with umbrellas, hats and shoes strewn randomly around the room. This scene is interplayed with a large canvas of Sunday in the Park, viewed as a painting within a painting, strategically covering much of the left hand side of the picture. A possible interpretation -- not without a certain wit -- is of the Three Graces. Here, the slender demigoddesses have descended from the realm of myth into the Batignolles district, where they have become bored models.

The most disturbing work on view was Toulouse-Lautrec's A Montrouge -- Rosa la Rouge. In a play on the meaning of Montrouge, the colour red, is echoed in the colour of the girl's lips and hair. Her torso faces us while her head is sharply turned away, as she looks over her shoulder, apparently in a mood of angry defiance, her hair tumbling wildly over her face. A vivid and unforgettable image of a tough working girl.

Of the selection of Picassos on view the most striking was Acrobat and Young Harlequin (Acrobate et jeune Arlequin). This is one of Picasso's largest canvases devoted to the circus and fete foraine, a subject from which he drew much of his imagery during the rose period of 1904-1906. Transcribed in part from his first hand experience of itinerant fairground entertainment in Montmartre, these saltimbanques also belong to a broad period iconography of the vagabond performing artist -- and the artist in general -- as estranged Bohemian outcast. The tall acrobat dressed in red like a jester and the small harlequin in a multi-coloured costume, both looking in opposite directions, embody creative genius and alienated melancholy. In Picasso, the slender body types, delicate gestures and refined facial features lend a quasi-aristocratic mien to figures such as the Acrobat and Young Harlequin; their emaciation is idealised, a conflation of poverty and grace as physical and spiritual states of being.

Finally to Matisse -- and The Red Madras Headdress (Mme. Matisse: Madras rouge). This rhythmically composed portrait of Matisse's wife is remarkable for its colour and the boldness of its patterning. The articulation of the woman's body in space is vividly indicated by the carefully modulated drawing and is further enhanced by the daring contrasts of green and red tints within the skin tones. The curving, rhythmic forms are made even more lively by the way they pivot around the straight arm of the chair. The vitality of the subject is expressed directly by the floral patterning on the woman's dress and her bright red Indian headdress with curved golden lines. A work of great originality.

No consideration of Matisse's oeuvres would be complete without mentioning Blue Still Life (Nature morte bleue). This is one of Matisse's most Cezannian compositions, but it is a strong affirmation of the artist's own version of Cezannism rather than a mere imitation. The smouldering intensity of the brightly coloured fruits in relation to the deep blues that surround them already prefigures the colouristic sophistication of Matisse's mature work. In this painting Matisse makes especially effective use of the patterned cloth on the table, which he would employ in a number of his still lifes in later years. The relationship between the real fruit on the table and the blue basket of flowers that dominates the pattern on the tablecloth creates a powerful metaphor for the expression of elan vital, or vital force that greatly enhances the strength of the painting. The right-hand side of the painting is heavily anchored by a majestic vase and the dark, stately verticals of the curtains and wall. A superb work which imprints itself in the mind.

This, then, is arguably the finest collection of paintings on show for the past decade. It can be seen in Tokyo until March and then moves back to Philadelphia in the summer and later to Toronto.
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Author:Green, Laurence
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Mar 1, 1994
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