Road Trip! Munch, Monet Check Out the Riviera

The exhibition called Impressions of the Riviera , which Kenneth Wayne has organized this summer at the Portland (Maine) Museum of Art, isn’t quite what you might expect it to be from the word “Impressions” in its title. Which is to say that it isn’t yet another roundup of the usual Impressionist suspects. Even the show’s subtitle– Monet, Renoir, Matisse and Their Contemporaries –doesn’t entirely convey the unexpected range of talent, style and ideas that this delightful exhibition encompasses.

Both Monet and Renoir are, to be sure, represented by five paintings each–the Monets, all from the 1880’s, are particularly strong. Matisse is well represented, too, with four paintings from the 1920’s. In this exhibition, however, these celebrated French masters compete for attention with–among other surprises–Edvard Munch, Max Beckmann, William Glackens and Milton Avery. Which, to say the least, is not the way we usually get to see any of these artists.

The result is unfailingly illuminating. However much we may think we know about what Glackens owed to Renoir or what Avery owed to Matisse, for example, seeing their paintings in close proximity turns out to be something quite different from an object lesson in what has been called “the anxiety of influence.” It is more like a lesson in connoisseurship for anyone who has the wit–or the “eye”–to profit from such a lesson. Avery’s still underappreciated strengths as a painter are actually enhanced by his close proximity to Matisse in this exhibition, and Glackens–particularly in the painting of The Suquet Festival (1932)–never looked better than he does in this show.

One is certainly left in little doubt about the connoisseurship that Mr. Wayne has brought to this interesting selection of objects in the Impressions show. Given the Riviera’s fame as a holiday resort, it might have been expected that the show would be merely another potpourri of pretty pictures, but Mr. Wayne has approached his theme as a serious art-historical subject and made good on that approach by ferreting out the kind of “discoveries” which give us an enlarged understanding of the ways in which the Riviera has served as an artistic inspiration, and then juxtaposing them with more familiar depictions of the locale.

Among the latter, for example, are two Fauve classics by Georges Braque– Boats on the Beach, L’Estaque and Landscape, L’Estaque (both 1906)–a small gem by Pierre Bonnard called Landscape in the Midi (1926), two exceptionally beautiful landscapes by Henri-Edmond Cross, and four paintings by Raoul Dufy, one of which, Boats at Martigues (1907), is the strongest picture by this artist I have ever seen.

Among the discoveries–which is what I believe they will be for most people seeing this exhibition–are the two paintings by Edvard Munch, both from the collection of the Munch Museum in Oslo and both painted in 1892. The Beach at Nice is a small landscape of a beach that is executed with a delicacy one rarely associates with this artist. By the Roulette is very different–a large nocturnal interior of many figures in evening clothes huddled in anxious expectation around a roulette table in a Riviera gambling casino. This has to be one of Munch’s greatest pictures, and seen here in the company of sun-drenched landscapes by Monet and Renoir, this rare glimpse of Riviera night life is a vivid reminder of just how shocking Munch’s paintings must have been in this period.

Still another surprise in the exhibition comes in the section devoted to the early sculpture of the Ukrainian artist Alexander Archipenko (1887-1964), one of the many artists and writers who quit wartime Paris in the 1914-1918 period for the more agreeable comforts of the Riviera. Owing perhaps to some of the excesses (not to say vulgarities) of Archipenko’s later work, which was produced in the United States, we tend to forget just how extraordinary an artist he was in the days of his involvement with the Paris avant-garde in the early years of the century. At least two works in the current exhibition–a white marble carving of a female figure called Flat Torso (1914) and the even more ambitious Before the Mirror (In the Boudoir) (1915), a polychrome, mixed-media Cubist relief of great originality–are the kind of masterpieces that suggest the need for a revaluation of Archipenko’s achievement. In the catalogue accompanying the show, Mr. Wayne gives us an excellent account of the artist’s work in this period.

In all respects but one–the decision to paint the walls of the exhibition galleries a very jarring shade of peach–this is a wonderful exhibition. Mr. Wayne clearly has an expert eye for finding the objects required for such an exhibition. He knows the difference between esthetic quality and its absence, and he has the requisite command of scholarship to do justice to his selections. Both his own essay in the catalogue and those written by John House and Kenneth E. Silver are very solid contributions to criticism. Even the wall texts, which often quote what artists had to say about their own work and that of their contemporaries, are uncommonly intelligent and illuminating.

Impressions of the Riviera remains on view at the Portland Museum of Art through Oct. 18.